LUDLOW-- Over the last 18 months, the Medication Assisted Treatment Program [MAT] at the Hampden County Sheriff's Department has helped more than 1,500 people in custody.

Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi says it's important especially now, during the pandemic.

"Substance use has gone up. The deaths have gone up. And let's not forget about suicide. Suicide has substantially gone up during the pandemic," said Sherif Cocchi.

The sheriff's department reports more than 80% of incarcerated individuals battle some level of substance abuse, and compared to the rest of the adult population, the opioid related overdose death rate after they are released is 120 times higher.

While other private treatment programs shut down or were limited during the pandemic, the MAT program kept going.

"I and nor do the staff, ever want credit for it. It is the right thing to do," said Cocchi. "It's about offering people an opportunity to take a medication to curtail an urge, that if they don't curtail or fall back victim of substance abuse, they can die."

The program pairs counseling and behavioral therapy with access to three FDA drugs for treating substance abuse disorder. They are authorized to administer methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone.

"Like anything else in life, some of our population misuse the program," said Cocchi. "But that is why we have staff dedicated to watching, making sure the medication is taken and it's absorbed and not spit out or repurposed."

Cocchi said the goal is to help people transition from street drugs to treatment, and the program is successful. 

"It's about continuously challenging, talking and educating our population to there's a better tomorrow but this is one of the avenues of getting yourself there," said Cocchi.

The MAT Pilot Program was launched back in September of 2019 and is available in 6 other counties in the state.