COLUMBIA — Inmates suffering from addictions to heroin and prescription pain pills may soon have new treatment options in South Carolina prisons. 

The S.C. Department of Corrections has launched a pilot program where the agency will administer Vivitrol — one of three federally approved treatment drugs for opioid addiction. 

State Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said the agency hopes the treatment effort will help incarcerated individuals suffering from addiction while behind prison fences, and allow them to avoid heroin and pain pills once they are released.

"This is something new, so we want to make sure we do this correctly," Stirling said. "The goal is to get these folks off this addiction."

The effort to provide medication-assisted treatment to South Carolinians in prison comes at a time when the state and the nation continue to combat an epidemic that killed more than 33,000 people across the country last year. Roughly 565 fatalities were tied to opioids in the Palmetto State in 2015, the latest data available. 

The trial run of Vivitrol will begin with 10 prisoners, Stirling said, including men and women. Corrections staff and drug treatment specialists will manage the medication and counseling, either in person or through telemedicine conferences. 

Vivitrol is the brand name for the injectable form of naltrexone, a drug that until 2010 had been used only to treat alcohol dependency. 

Other opioid-treatment drugs, such as methadone and buprenorphine, are more scientifically proven in clinical trials and are preferred by physicians for people suffering from long-term opioid addictions. But unlike methadone and buprenorphine, naltrexone is an opioid antagonist that blocks the "high" that results when someone takes heroin or prescription pills. 

In recent years, Vivitrol has taken off as the manufacturer of the drug, Alkeremes, has advocated its use directly to law enforcement agencies and corrections officials around the country. 

Vivitrol, which is taken once a month, can cost upwards of $1,000 per injection. That is more costly than methadone or buprenorphine. But both of those treatments require federal licenses to administer. 

Stirling and state corrections officials hope the monthly injections will help prevent patients from re-entering the criminal justice system for drug-related offenses and possibly save the state money in the long run. 

"We’re excited about it, we’ll see where it goes," Stirling said. "Hopefully it will change these folks’ lives." 

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.