By Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

It has been nearly 15 years since Mo Korchinski was last incarcerated and started her recovery from substance use disorder thanks to a warden  who found her a bed in a recovery program after her release.

It was the sense of dignity  and accountability to someone else that helped her stay in recovery and  start building a different life, Korchinksi says.

But now as executive director of Unlocking  the Gates Services Society, which supports people who are released from  prison to find housing, health care and community, Korchinski feels like  resources for clients are disappearing before her eyes.

“There are less now than when we started,”  Korchinski said in an interview. The demand for her organization’s  support services has grown by 50 per cent over the past year, from 800  clients in 2020 to more than 1,200 clients in 2021 so far.

And as 2021 hurtles towards  being B.C.’s most fatal year recorded for toxic drug deaths, helping  people released from incarceration to access health care and harm  reduction is more important than ever, according to a new study by researchers at the BC Centre for Disease Control.

The study analyzed the  number of times people used the health-care system as well as the number  of times they overdosed after their release from prison. It looked at  16,089 releases of 6,721 incarcerated individuals in B.C.

The study found that the leading cause of death within 30 days of release was toxic drug overdoses.

But formerly incarcerated people who  accessed a family physician in the community within 30 days of release  were 42 per cent less likely to experience a fatal overdose, it found.

About 86.4 per cent of people who  experienced a non-fatal overdose within one month of release had visited  a doctor, compared to only 48.4 per cent of people who died of an  overdose. 

Non-fatal overdoses are a key predictor for  a fatal one later on, and also carry high risks of brain injuries and  permanent health issues.

However, most people who accessed health  care after release weren’t going for substance-related concerns, lead  author Kate McLeod said.

“Unmet health-care needs can affect mental  health and substance use,” said McLeod, who completed her PhD at the UBC  School of Population and Public Health earlier this fall. 

“So that first visit is a really important  opportunity to provide trauma-informed care, and for family physicians  to be well-resourced with referrals.”

The period after release from prison is well-documented to carry heightened risk for overdosing for a number of reasons.

People’s tolerances for substances are  reduced after not having access to them in prison, and their knowledge  of the toxic drug supply and how it has changed is often not up to date.

Incarceration also disrupts every aspect of  a person’s life, making it difficult to manage renewing prescriptions  or seeking care for chronic pain or mental illnesses, so many people  turn to criminalized substances to manage.

People who are more comfortable or able to  access health care in general may be more likely to seek out other  supports such as harm reduction support, McLeod said.

The study analyzed data  from a sample of 20 per cent of B.C.’s population, including 6,721  incarcerated people, from January 2015 to December 2018 to observe the  impact of transferring responsibility for health care in provincial  prisons from the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General to the  Provincial Health Services Authority in 2017.

More incarcerated people were connected with prescribed opioid substitutes  and other harm reduction and substance use treatment options after the  PHSA took over, and very few of those people experienced an overdose  within a month of release.

But just one-third of people accessed  community health care within 30 days of being released, the study found,  meaning a majority still don’t have access to adequate care or avoid  seeking it due to stigma against people who have been incarcerated.

Indigenous people, who are incarcerated  disproportionately more than non-Indigenous people due to the ongoing  effects of colonization, as well as women experience specific barriers  of racism and sexism when seeking health care.

While not all incarcerated people use  substances, and not all substance users experience incarceration, the  criminalization of substances and survival crimes to fund their use  creates a deadly “revolving door” between the prison system and  community living for those who do use substances.

Most people are released after less than  two months in custody but many are trapped in a cycle of  re-incarceration, McLeod noted, and they are still deeply connected to  their communities.

“Responsibility for the supports they need  and strengthening those connections is a whole government or a whole  society responsibility,” McLeod said.

These days, Korchinski and her colleague  Pam Young work around the clock to pick people up from every  provincially run prison in B.C. and help them find a place to stay, or a  place to start recovery if they want.

If someone has detoxed in prison and wants  to start recovery, “it’s such a small window of opportunity to get them  into treatment and recovery before they change their mind,” said Young,  who had 25 years of lived experience with substance use and  incarceration before she started recovery in 2009.

Often a bed doesn’t open up before the individual relapses or changes their mind, she said.

Young, who lost her son Glenn Jr. to toxic  drugs in June 2020 among hundreds of other friends and colleagues over  the years, said she wants to see more preventative actions taken to  connect people with prescription treatments, safe supply or harm  reduction before they are released.

Prison isn’t the answer, Korchinski said,  but more needs to be done to make it less punitive and focus it on  healing trauma and restoring dignity to those individuals.

“That’s what we try to do, pick people up  and be that hope and believe in them,” she said. “No matter how many  times they call us.”

This item is reprinted with permission from The Tyee, British Columbia. See article HERE.

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