Maine jails have a drug problem, and it’s not hard to see why.

So many inmates are there at least in part as a result of their addiction, and that addiction doesn’t stop just because they are behind bars. The smuggling that so frequently brings drugs into Maine jails is just another result of that addiction.

But rather than treat the underlying cause, jails are taking on the symptom. It is just the latest example of how chronic underfunding, longstanding bias and willful ignorance are making the state’s opioid epidemic worse.


Unable to stop the smuggling any other way, Maine jails increasingly are — against state policy — banning contact visits, so visitors must talk through a pane of glass or over a computer screen, and can’t pass contraband through an embrace or a kiss.

Sheriffs say it is necessary also because of the high cost of offering individual visits, costs that must be covered by chronically underfunded jails.

Up until now, the Maine Department of Corrections has looked the other way. If new guidelines are approved, they won’t have to — it will be left up to jails, in practice and in policy.

Contact visits allow inmates to maintain and nurture relationships with loved ones in a way that can’t be replicated by other means — which is why they are offered in our state prisons. Taking them away from inmates who for the most part have not been found guilty and who are in jail largely because they are poor and could not make bail is shortsighted and counterproductive.

It is the same shortsightedness, along with bias against inmates and proven addiction therapies, that will ensure the smuggling continues, regardless of how many obstacles jail officials put in the way.


No Maine jails allow inmates to take methadone or Suboxone, even if those inmates were taking those medications when they entered jail. In fact, of the 5,100 or so jails in the United States, only 30 offer medication-assisted addiction treatment, the most successful of treatments.

Instead, inmates detox with no more than over-the-counter pain medications, lowering their threshold for the drug but hardly solving their addiction, making it likely they’ll return to drug use once released, and more likely they’ll overdose.

Two-thirds of inmates in U.S. jails and prisons suffer from addiction, but only 11 percent get treatment. Where they do get treatment, however, the results are good.

A longstanding methadone program at Riker’s Island in New York City, for instance, has led to less recidivism and more inmates seeking treatment outside of incarceration.

But too many jailers across the country still refuse to see the truth behind medication-assisted treatment. They are loathe to introduce what they see as just another drug into their jails, and they have little appetite — or ability — to spend now on treatment to save more later through lower incarceration and crime rates.


The same is true for lawmakers and other government officials — including many in this state — who just can’t see people with addiction as anything more as criminals who warrant pity or contempt, not real investment.

That much was obvious in the past legislative session, when lawmakers could not get anything of real value done, even as more than one Mainer a day dies from drug overdose.

L.D. 377, for example, as first written would have allowed for grants to fund medication-assisted treatment in jails, among other anti-addiction programs. It was later scaled down, with the medication-assisted treatment removed, then not funded, and will be considered in the next session.

Penobscot County Jail is conducting a one-year pilot program using Vivitrol, a drug that makes it impossible to get high off opiates. It has shown some early promise in Massachusetts, but there are no studies showing long-term effectiveness.

Of course, that’s not true of methadone and Suboxone, which have long, solid track records. It’s time we get those medications where they are needed, and stop taking the easy way out.

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