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Massachusetts to Provide Inmates Expanded Access to Opioid Addiction Medication

— December 29, 2019

The state corrections department agreed to lift limitations on how long certain inmates can receive opioid treatment medications.

The Massachusetts Department of Corrections will provide inmates struggling with opioid addiction additional access to medication.

According to WBUR, the DOC made its decision due to a recently-filed lawsuit. Brought on behalf of three inmates, the suit claims that Massachusetts restricted prisoners’ access to buprenorphine, used in the treatment of opioid use disorder.

WBUR adds that the suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Massachusetts-based law firm Goodwin Proctor.

The complaint alleges that a Department of Corrections policy allows inmates to take buprenorphine only for the first 90 days of their incarceration. The medication is then withheld, administered only again before an inmate’s expected release date.

“The Massachusetts Department of Corrections is forcing people to needlessly suffer,” said ACLU-Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose. “Public officials should support people in their efforts to overcome opioid addiction, not obstruct them.

While the DOC’s deputy general counsel, Philip Silva, said that treatment decisions are made by the department’s medical provider, Judge Indira Talwani seemed skeptical.

Jail cell; image by Ichigo121212, via Pixaby, CC0.
Jail cell; image by Ichigo121212, via Pixaby, CC0.

“You’ve filed documents which suggest that decision making is in the hands of the medical provider,” Talwani said. “At the same time, DOC documents are not consistent with that and suggest there is a 90-day DOC limit on medication.”

Talwani prompted the Department of Corrections to check whether it’d be possible for the three inmates to resume taking buprenorphine. To that end, Talwani recessed court, giving Silva time to talk with state-level prison officials.

Both parties agreed to a resolution in a Boston court on Monday. Under the agreement’s terms, the Department of Corrections agreed to let two of the inmates continue taking buprenorphine. The third inmate—who’s since been transferred to a prison without a treatment program—may be sent to a facility providing buprenorphine treatment.

“We are relieved that our clients will have access to medication while we continue to fight for their legal rights and personal safety,” said ACLU attorney Jessie Rossman. “Opioid-use disorder is a medical issue and must be treated as such. This order will save our clients’ lives.”

Talwani declined to issue a ruling, saying she preferred both sides to find common ground.

“My preference is not to weigh in on the issues in this suit,” Talwani said.

WBUR notes that the ACLU has several other active suits concerning medication policies in jails and federal prisons.

“This case, of course, is on behalf of our three plaintiffs but we certainly hope it encourages the Department of Corrections to make sure everyone has access to their medication,” Rossman said. “Addiction is a disease and we need to treat it as such.”


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