UNE students, MDOC partner to assemble 1,000 harm reduction kits for released inmates

UNE students place contraceptives into harm reduction bags
UNE students and representatives from the Maine Department of Corrections place contraceptives into harm reduction bags, which will go to recently released inmates as they reenter society.

Following the assembly of 800 harm-reduction kits this past spring, a dozen University of New England students from multiple health professions programs convened on Monday, Aug. 1, to assemble 1,000 more kits to go to individuals being released from custody of the Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC).

Harm reduction refers to a wide range of public health practices designed to reduce the social and physical tolls of potentially dangerous activities — such as substance misuse and, consequently, drug overdose — and provide opportunities for recovery.

The event was sponsored by the UNE’s Center for Excellence in Collaborative Education (CECE) and the Westbrook College of Health Professions (WCHP) Office of Service Learning.

Kits assembled included toothbrushes and toothpaste, fentanyl test strips, contraceptives, and naloxone — an opiate overdose antidote — among other items intended to reduce harm for vulnerable individuals. The kits, 1,000 in total, also included handwritten cards from the students, meant to give encouragement to those receiving the kits.

Elise Parker, a graduate assistant in CECE and second year student in UNE’s Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (M.S.O.T) program, said the event provided her and her interprofessional peers an invaluable glimpse into the work they will do as future health care providers.

“Going into occupational therapy, you never know who is going to come into your clinic, and individuals who experience substance use disorder will be a population I’m likely to interact with,” Parker said. “Being mindful and aware of how everybody has their own challenges, their own mountains to climb, and building connections with people is a huge part harm reduction.”

“As a health care provider, the most powerful thing you can do is connect with your patients, see them as individuals, and most importantly see them as people,” she added.

Jessica Andrews (A.B.S.N., ’23) said UNE’s partnership with MDOC represents a new wave in educating health professionals to treat substance use disorder, one that destigmatizes individuals living with it.

“Your patients don’t need to be scrutinized more than they already are, and the phrase ‘harm reduction’ helps to do that,” she said. “Changing the language around substance use disorder helps get rid of the stigma. It also fosters beneficial relationships with patients and advocates for them.”

Trisha Mason, M.A., director of the WCHP Office of Service Learning, echoed that sentiment.

“This innovative and mutually beneficial partnership with the Maine Department of Corrections provides our health professions students with important and valuable insights into corrections medicine and, at the same time, empowers them by taking part in public health promotion and awareness,” Mason remarked. “The cards the students write, the time they spend listening to first-hand experiences of clients, and knowing that these kits have, in fact, saved lives by providing individuals with naloxone demonstrates the important impact they can have.”

Contents of the harm reduction kits

A sample card written by a UNE student to a kit recipient