By Ananda Shorey
BALTIMORE – Michael, a drug addict at the Maryland Detention Center in Baltimore, said he has found his salvation — in a needle.
Michael is one of about 30 inmates participating in the first jail-based acupuncture detox-therapy program in the country. Acupuncture, the ancient Chinese practice of piercing the body with needles to cure various aliments, is supposed to help the inmates calm their addictions, sleep better and get a better outlook on life.
“It saved my life and helped me cope with life,” Michael said.
Besides helping inmates while they are behind bars, jail officials said the program has also helped reduced the recidivism rate when those inmates are released. The acupuncture is just part of a comprehensive substance abuse program in the prison, but administrators say it is an important part.
“It is a panacea for a disruptive body that has been abused,” said LaMont Flanagan, the state’s commissioner of pretrial detention and services and the founder of the acupuncture program. “It restores the balance of their physiological makeup.”
But not everyone is sold on the benefits of acupuncture.
“To my knowledge, there has not been clear-cut evidence that acupuncture is something that keeps people off of drugs,” said David Fram, an addiction psychiatrist with the Medical Society of the District of Columbia.
Fram said he was involved in a program with patients outside of jail who had acupuncture treatment for their addictions, and that most did not find that it helped them. “It did not seem to amount to too much for the people who tried,” he said.
Many of the participants in the Maryland Detention Center said they entered the program with a similar skepticism. They said they doubted that anything could fill the emotional and physical voids in their lives like drugs did — until the treatment began.
“It’s waking us up,” said James, a 47-year-old inmate undergoing acupuncture. “We’re beginning to be high — on a natural high, and that’s scary.”
The program started in 1993 with women inmates, and its success encouraged prison administrators to expand it to male prisoners in 1996. Originally funded with private money from the Abell Foundation, the $200,000-a-year program soon won federal funding and is now entirely state-supported.
Inmates in the program must have a history of drug use and must be at least 18 years old, although they range up to 60 years in age. They are often referred to the program by drug court and cannot have any felony convictions. Those with chronic psychological problems are not admitted into the program.
The inmates meet several times a week for 45-minute detox-therapy sessions in an annex in the detention center. As they sit in a circle, an acupuncturist deftly sticks five to 10 needles in the outer portion of their ears at spots that are supposed to correspond to their lungs, liver, heart, kidneys and sympathetic nervous system.
The acupuncturist, Paul Buchman, said individuals begin to feel better after two or three treatments. The standard treatment is 14 visits, during which the inmates are slowly weaned off the needles so they will be better able to rely on themselves.
In addition to the regular acupuncture treatments, inmates in the program also undergo more traditional detox therapy, including substance abuse education, group and individual counseling, anger management and conflict- resolution training.
Prenettie Blanton, director of the detention center’s substance abuse program, said the acupuncture needles revitalize the body’s organs and help them to function normally by clearing the blocks that inhibit energy from flowing. That energy is needed in order for people to heal from addictions, she said.
“Acupuncturists use needles, herbs, touch and self-healing skills to help people reconnect with their vital energy,” said Blanton.
The Traditional Acupuncture Institute says that people who have had the therapy report fewer drug cravings, fewer relapses, and a drop in insomnia, anxiety, depression, sweats, nausea, muscle cramps and headaches.
Blanton said statistics show that after drug addicts undergo acupuncture they are better able to rely on themselves when they are released.
“In the past two years, less than a third of those folks return to treatment within a year,” she said. “The men can choose treatment versus failing.”
But Fram pointed out that inmates volunteer for the acupuncture program, indicating they are already willing to kick their habits when they come into the program. He said it might not be the acupuncture that is helping inmates control their addictions, but simply the fact that they are behind bars where they do not have easy access to drugs.
“Proximity to drugs makes a big difference, in terms of coping with addictions,” he said. “Addicts face their real challenge when they are back on the streets.”
Fram does not discount acupuncture entirely, but he is not overwhelmed by the evidence of its effect on drug addiction.
“There is good evidence that it (acupuncture) has an effect on pain in the body, but in a general way — it being helpful for drug addictions is less clear,” Fram said. “The anecdotal evidence is not so striking that people should do it.”
Flanagan said he is used to such skepticism from traditional doctors and bureaucrats, and is confident that the acupuncture treatments are working.
“Opposition is more from the lack of knowledge about acupuncture than anything else because some people perceive it as being a form of voodoo therapy, in the fact that it is not traditionally accepted in this country,” he said.
“I look forward to the day where we can provide treatment on demand — meaning every inmate who enters the system who has a drug problem will be able to take acupuncture treatment,” he said.