A Maine man is suing the state Department of Corrections, saying it won’t let him continue to take his opioid withdrawal medications in prison.
Filed on behalf of 30-year old Zachary Smith of Caribou, ME, by the American Civil Liberties Union, the suit accuses the Maine Department of Corrections of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Along with statutory violations, the ACLU claims that Smith’s Eighth Amendment right are being violated.
Smith, writes the Press-Herald, takes buprenorphine—also known as Suboxone—which is used to combat the long-term effects of opioid use disorder. Recovering addicts sometimes take ‘maintenance’ doses of the drug for years.
Medication-assisted rehabilitation is touted as the “gold standard” for opioid recovery, according to experts quoted by the Press-Herald.
“Denying needed medication to people with opioid use disorders serves absolutely no good purpose, and actually undermines the important goal of keeping people off opiates,” ACLU Maine Legal Director Zachary Heiden said in a statement. “Going to prison shouldn’t be an automatic death sentence, but that is the chance we take when we cut prisoners off from adequate medical care.”
The Bangor Daily News claims that, in most Maine prisons, inmates aren’t allowed to continue taking addiction treatment medications.
The consequences can be dire, as prisoners are forced into drawn-out withdrawal. Signs and symptoms can include ‘vomiting, severe anxiety, sweats, depressions and seizures.’ Studies have shown that inmates who can’t continue treatment in jail are at an elevated risk for overdosing after their release.
Heiden says he hopes that the Department of Corrections “can understand the significance of this case, but also that they understand the significance of the development of medical science in this area and would adjust their treatment regimens appropriately.”
The case, writes the Daily News, rests on two core principles: that the suffering caused by opioid withdrawal violates Smith’s Eighth Amendment rights, which bar cruel and unusual punishment, and that denial of treatment contradicts the American with Disabilities Act. Under the latter, people in recovery ‘are protected from discrimination in medical care’ by federal law.
ACLU’s complaint contends that making Smith’s prescription unavailable “will cause him physical and psychological suffering, will expose him to a heightened risk for other serious medical conditions, and could trigger relapse into active addiction, potentially resulting in overdose and death.”
Smith hasn’t yet begun serving his nine-month sentence. The ACLU filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which could speed up Smith’s case and render a decision before the man’s set to serve.
“He’s willing to do his time,” ACLU staff attorney Emma Bonda said, “but he wants to make sure he doesn’t put himself in serious harm’s way.”
Sheriffs and correctional staff have, in the past, opposed letting prescription withdrawal drugs into their facilities. The Daily News suggests that most don’t want to deal with heightened operating costs or the potential for inmate diversion.
The case’s outcome could create waves if it’s decided in Smith’s favor. An estimated 70% of inmates serving time in local jails across the country are locked up drug charges or say they abuse drugs regularly.