KNOX COUNTY - Knoxville and Knox County leaders are uniting to address East Tennessee's growing opioid epidemic by changing their approach to addiction treatment for jail inmates.
Last month, WBIR 10Listens highlighted a revolutionary new program at one Kentucky county's jail.
10News showed that report to Knox County leaders, who say they hope to implement something like it here.
The Kenton County Detention Center in northern Kentucky launched its Jail Substance Abuse Program a year ago.
It combines social support - inmates in the program are kept separate from the general population - and psychological support, in the form of programming.
But what really sets this program apart is its use of the Vivitrol injection. It's a drug that blocks the effects of opioids and alcohol for 30 days.
10News showed this program to Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen, who looked at a similar program this summer at a jail in Massachusetts.
"That program that we saw was much like what I just saw in Kentucky. Same type of thing, and that's the type of program that we're looking at to try to implement here in Knox County," Allen said, adding Vivitrol, specifically, is the element she wants to see used locally.
10News also showed the report to Lee Tramel, Chief of Administration with the Knox County Sheriff's Office.
"I think the Vivitrol would be a great addition," he said.
Increasingly, Tramel said, law enforcement agencies across the country are treating addiction as a disease, rather than a moral failure.
"Communities such as Kenton County, Kentucky and right here in Knox County, you know, we've realized that, and we're taking steps now to move in that direction," he said.
But experts say it takes more than a year to re-wire an addicted brain, so while the Kentucky facility gives inmates a 30-day Vivitrol shot right before release, people have to keep taking it to help them kick the habit.
"That seems to be where the programs like in Kentucky and Massachusetts do break down," Allen said, "is because folks voluntarily come off of it."
She said Knox County leaders hope to craft a program in which people are required to get the shot monthly while they are still on probation.
"We'd have a hammer to make them consistently stay on the shots, continue with the therapy for a much longer period, thus increasing the possibility that they're actually rewired and actually can kick their addiction habit," Allen said.
"We may be a decade away, but if we can get a handle on this, I think we'll see numbers drop in our jails. I really do," Tramel said, adding the goal is to "get people clean, but they'll still have to answer for their crimes."
This effort comes as East Tennessee jails are packed beyond capacity, with many inmates whose crimes are tied to drug addiction.
"I truly believe that if we can help folks kick the addiction habit, that we will see less crime, less victims and it will be a win-win for us," Allen said. "We're hopeful."
"I really believe we're headed in the right direction with this," Tramel said.
Knox County is in talks with Vivitrol's manufacturer, Alkermes, to provide a number of monthly doses for free. The county, in partnership with the Helen Ross McNabb Center, is applying for a grant to pay for other doses.
Allen said Vivitrol treatments could begin as early as January.
(© 2016 WBIR)