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Kansas prisons will give doses of opioid antidote to some inmates when they're released

A nasal spray version of the drug overdose medication Naloxone sits on a table.
Hugo Phan
Naloxone is a medicine that can quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The medication is available without a prescription, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends anyone suffering opioid addiction to have it nearby.

The Kansas Department of Corrections is using opioid settlement funds to pay for a program aimed at reducing opioid overdose deaths. Opioids like fentanyl are a major driver of rapidly rising overdose deaths in Kansas.

Some inmates leaving Kansas prisons are returning to civilian life with a potentially lifesaving tool in hand.

The Kansas Department of Corrections recently launched a program that provides the outgoing inmates with naloxone, the opioid antidote that can quickly reverse the effects of an overdose.

The medication, which is also sold under the brand name Narcan, can combat the deadly effects of drugs like prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl.

Jennifer King, a spokesperson for the department, said prison officials see the program as a way to save lives and educate inmates on the dangers of opioids. It’s a tactic, similar to naloxone vending machines, that has begun spreading throughout the state to help combat the opioid epidemic.

“Simply put, Narcan saves lives,” King said, “(and) we can overcome barriers and get people into the treatment services they need to reduce substance use.”

The prison initiative is one of the many ways state and community organizations are spending funds Kansas received through national legal settlements against prescription opioid makers, distributors and pharmacies. The state expects to receive more than $340 million over the next 18 years.

The Kansas Fights Addiction Act of 2021 created a board that decides how to use the money. That board provided $200,000 to the Kansas Department of Corrections for the new program. So far the department has spent about $85,000 on 2,000 naloxone kits.

Outgoing inmates can choose to participate in the program and have the naloxone included with their belongings when they leave prison. Since the program launched at all of the state’s prison facilities in March, more than 200 kits have been issued.

State officials said the medication can be useful because relapse rates are high after inmates are released from prison. Additionally, individuals who suffer from opioid use disorder are more likely to be arrested again during the first year after their release from prison.

King said a majority of outgoing inmates are participating.

“Harm reduction strategies such as Narcan are a vital component of effectively addressing substance use disorder,” King said, “so we will always try to provide these services to the extent that is feasible.”

Saving lives

Opioids are a major driver of drug overdoses in Kansas. In 2022, more than two-thirds of the overdose deaths in the state were caused by opioids, according to Kansas Department of Health and Environment data. The number of opioid overdose deaths has been rapidly rising, growing nearly five times since 2005.

Seth Dewey is a co-founder of the Kansas Recovery Network, a harm-reduction coalition that first began providing naloxone for free in Hutchinson in 2018. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that naloxone distribution programs decrease overdose death rates.

Dewey said providing naloxone to the public for free is a proven lifesaving measure and helps individuals suffering from addiction overcome cost barriers. He said individuals who may need naloxone are often uninsured and cannot afford the $50 over-the-counter cost.

Outgoing inmates may also return to drug-using surroundings and be able to share the potentially lifesaving tool with others, he said.

“They could be going back into that kind of an environment,” Dewey said, “where even if they do not use drugs, the people who live in the house might.”

Dewey considers providing naloxone to an individual a chance to make a human connection with someone who may be suffering from drug addiction and help them understand the danger opioids pose.

The prison program also comes about a year after the Kansas Legislature legalized the use of fentanyl test strips, which can be used to test drugs before they are consumed. It’s a measure that can help individuals using illegal drugs make sure they do not unknowingly ingest deadly fentanyl.

Dewey said using naloxone or fentanyl test strips empowers individuals to make safer decisions, and that can have a domino effect toward a healthier lifestyle.

“That's going to have other outcomes down the line,” Dewey said, “like potential individuals starting to develop the self-direction of, ‘Oh my goodness, this is really getting dangerous. Maybe I should do something else.’”

Dylan Lysen reports on social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Threads @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As the Kansas social services and criminal justice reporter, I want to inform our audience about how the state government wants to help its residents and keep their communities safe. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning the effectiveness of state programs and law enforcement methods. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard. You can reach me at dlysen@kcur.org, 816-235-8027 or on Threads, @DylanLysen.