Activists Rally at City Hall for Better Drug Treatment in Prisons

Trish Herring rallying for better drug treatment in prisons and jails on Wednesday morning. (The Ink/Ali Zaslav)

Trish Herring, 50, clutched a photograph of her son Matt, who died of an opioid overdose last year just a few months after being released from prison.

“This is the face of my son, who unfortunately spent the last journey of his life incarcerated in New York City,” Herring told a crowd of about 20 who gathered on the steps of City Hall Wednesday at a rally for better drug treatment in New York prisons. “In a county jail with no treatment, no medication is where he detoxed. Sent off to prison in New York State, again with no treatment, no medication even offered.”

Herring’s son died on Aug. 25, 2017, at the age of 24. “He could have found a path to recovery,” said Herring. “Nothing is guaranteed. But he didn’t even have an offer.”

Within the first two weeks of their release, former inmates are 40 times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than the average citizen, according to a July 2018 study in the American Journal that analyzed opioid deaths among released prisoners in North Carolina from 2000-2015.

The rally was organized by Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-NY), a grassroots organization, and the New York Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that works to promote sensible drug policy.

While New York City does have some medical-assisted treatment in prisons and jails, it is not widely provided in every prison across the state. Rikers Island Correctional Facility has had a long-running opioid treatment program since 1987.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal also spoke at the rally, which was scheduled before a hearing on legislation she’s sponsoring to require all New York prisons to offer treatment.

“We’re going to lay there in front of everyone to see and read about, that people who are incarcerated do not have access to the treatment they need in order to lead a full life in recovery,” Rosenthal told the rally.

Dr. Kimberly Sue, medical director of the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York, an advocacy group that promotes the dignity of those affected by drug use, told the rally that she was speaking to support patients.

“I’m here to today to stand in support with you guys and all of my patients and my patients that have died, my patients who have been incarcerated and died,” Sue said. “I stand up here for them today because they are not here to do so and I know things could be different. This is just one step toward changing a very broken and flawed system but it’s a humane and necessary step.”

Chanelle Sessooms, 62, a Brooklyn resident who does work for GMHC, an HIV/AIDS advocacy organization, showed up to help raise awareness.

“I’ve been a recovering addict myself since 1992, since I got out of the run of using drugs,” said Sessooms. “We still have people out here suffering and there’s an ongoing stigma and through that you have to fight.”

An estimated 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017 and opioids are reported to be involved in about 48,000 of the deaths, according to CDC preliminary data.

“We’re in the middle of an epidemic,” said Allegra Schorr, president of the Coalition of Medication-Assisted Treatment Providers and Advocates of New York State to the crowd. “It’s time to move the needle on this epidemic and it’s time to do it for all of our populations. Whether you’re behind bars, in NYC, or upstate New York, wherever you are, you have a right to effective treatment and that’s medication-assisted treatment.”

Schorr also pointed to successful treatment programs in prisons and jails in other states, like Rhode Island, which implemented an opioid treatment program in mid-2016 in its correctional system. The program has already contributed to a 61 percent decrease in post-incarceration overdose deaths and a 12 percent drop in overdose deaths statewide, according to a recent study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

“I think a lot of other prisons and jails are going to try to follow suit,” said Dr. Josiah Rich, who was on the Rhode Island Governor’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force, in a phone interview before the rally. “But I think that it’s very complicated, a lot are trying. It’s not a simple thing. There’s so much stigma around this disease and around this treatment.”

Assemblyman David Weprin, chair of the Assembly Committee on Corrections, was one of the last speakers. “We can help people, we can treat people and we have the proof,” Weprin said. “I’m here to say let’s bring medication-assisted treatment to our state’s correctional facilities and end the cycle of incarceration that often comes with untreated addiction.”

Hiawatha Collins, 50, a community leader and board member at VOCAL-NY said he hoped that people who attended the rally would learn that “everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. Nobody should be forced to go through withdrawal.”