Researchers receive $17 million grant to fight opioid addiction and overdoses in criminal justice populations

Prison corridor

It’s estimated that more than 130 people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses. Particularly at risk are people transitioning through the criminal justice system, many of whom may already be struggling with complex issues spanning mental health, family instability and job and housing insecurity.
In order to understand how best to reduce opioid addiction and overdoses in this vulnerable population in prisons and other justice settings, the University of Chicago Medicine has been awarded a five-year, $17 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Infectious disease researcher John Schneider, MD, MPH, a professor of medicine and public health sciences, will lead the grant alongside urban public health researcher Harold Pollack, PhD, the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration.

“More than half of the people who use opioids end up in jail or some sort of correctional setting,” said Schneider. “If we can engage the justice community around this problem, maybe we can make an impact.”

The Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN) grant is part of the National Institutes of Health’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) initiative, an aggressive, trans-agency effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. Launched in April 2018, the NIH HEAL Initiative is focused on improving prevention and treatment strategies for opioid misuse and addiction and enhancing pain management.

From UChicago's Hyde Park campus, Schneider and Pollack will oversee nearly a dozen research sites conducting opioid overdose prevention studies on people transitioning through the criminal justice system. The research sites, which are mainly comprised of other academic medical institutions, will collaborate with at least six criminal justice entities and programs across the United States, including prisons, parole and reentry systems and community-based treatment providers, to improve treatments for opioid addiction as well as pain management.

Everyone is desperate to find ways to reduce the carnage of the opioid epidemic, and everyone has a sense of urgency about this.

The UChicago team will provide support in several areas, including storing the various studies’ large quantities of data, which will involve sensitive de-identified patient information.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, which is affiliated with the University of Chicago, will be tapped to use simulations and other predictive modeling to gauge the effectiveness of the specific interventions being studied.

“We’ll be combining both our existing computational resources and the dynamic modelling capabilities we’ve developed over the years to look at a variety of interventions,” said Jonathan Ozik, PhD, a computational scientist at Argonne.

Meanwhile, the non-partisan research institute NORC at the University of Chicago will conduct polling about, and track and analyze policies on, opioid use across the country. The UChicago team will also provide administrative support for the extensive, multi-institution undertaking.

“Everyone is desperate to find ways to reduce the carnage of the opioid epidemic, and everyone has a sense of urgency about this,” said Pollack. “It’s a humbling responsibility to be given this resource.”

UChicago will also serve as one of the research sites and will conduct randomized trials about opioid overdose prevention on people in the criminal justice system at five sites in Illinois, including several jails across the state.

Co-principal investigators Schneider and Pollack are experienced, internationally-respected public health researchers. Schneider directs The Chicago Center for HIV Elimination, where he researches and implements ways to use existing social networks and public health systems to prevent the spread of HIV.

He has previously conducted public health and implementation science research with community members caught up in the criminal justice setting and used modeling to establish treatment and prevention plans for the state’s ending HIV program, Getting to Zero Illinois.

Pollack has extensively researched public policies and interventions to assist individuals with substance use disorders and behavioral health challenges within the criminal justice system. Pollack co-founded the University of Chicago Crime Lab and is the faculty co-director of the University of Chicago Health Lab and holds appointments in Public Health Sciences. He helps conduct research on interventions to reduce violence and public health challenges on a local and national level.