ACLU Sues Jails for Withholding Life-Saving Addiction Treatment Drugs

    County jails in Washington, Massachusetts and Maine are facing lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The lawsuits claim that withholding addiction treatment drugs from people entering the criminal justice system violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

    The latest suit—filed by the ACLU and the law firm Goodwin Procter this month against the Essex County House of Correction in Middleton, Mass., and its sheriff, Kevin Coppinger—was submitted on behalf of 32-year old Geoffrey Pesce.

    “Failing or denying to provide this treatment would indeed be a cruel and unusual punishment.”

    Pesce has been receiving methadone for two years for opioid use disorder and is scheduled to begin serving a 60-day sentence for driving with a suspended license. “Failing or denying to provide this treatment would indeed be a cruel and unusual punishment for Mr. Pesce, who has been in recovery for two years and whose well-being would be jeopardized without the medication-assisted treatment,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

    According to its website, the Essex County Sheriff provides an injection of naltrexone, a drug that blocks the high from heroin and other opioids, to people leaving its facility. But jail policy prohibits the use of methadone or buprenorphine—two treatments shown to cut the death rate among people with opioid addiction by half or more—to defendants entering the facility, even if they are being treated under the care of an outside physician. Naltrexone has been the subject of much controversy, both for the predatory marketing tactics of its manufacturer, and the risks of the drug itself, which may increase overdose death risk when people stop treatment.

    The ACLU previously filed similar lawsuits on behalf of inmates in Washington State and Maine.

    Their latest lawsuit comes on the heels of a new report out of Arizona that finds rising suicides in the Pima County Jail are likely the result of more inmates with opioid dependency being forced to withdraw without proper medication.

    As I reported in 2015, states have paid out tens of millions of dollars to settle wrongful death suits filed in response to the deaths of incarcerated people during detox.

    While at least 32 states have laws on the books dictating minimum standards for jails, many of these are voluntary or have no mechanism for enforcement. It’s typically left up to the chief administrator of each facility to determine its policies.


    Photo: Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger via Essex County Sheriff’s website. 

    • Christopher Moraff

      DISPATCHES is Christopher Moraff’s weekly column for Filter, featuring analysis and beat reporting. Christopher has spent over a decade reporting on the intersection of policing, criminal justice and civil liberties. His immersion reporting from Kensington, Philadelphia, has earned him a reputation as an expert on injection drug culture and the fentanyl crisis. His work has appeared in publications including the Daily Beast, the Washington Post and Al Jazeera America. He is co-host of the podcast Narcotica, and curator of the stock photo site StashHouse.org.

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