ACLU Sues Bureau of Prisons for Denying a Federal Prisoner Buprenorphine

    In a key moment for the rights of incarcerated people with substance use disorders, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapters of Kansas and Missouri announced on September 9 that they are suing the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for denying a prisoner access to a doctor-recommended opioid addiction treatment.

    Leaman Crews, 44, entered the US Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas on September 4 to serve a three-year sentence. Prison staff, citing official policy, are denying him buprenorphine, the opioid addiction treatment that he uses.

    The ACLU filed suit in the US District Court for the District of Kansas on September 6, and argues that the BOP’s denial of buprenorphine to Crews violates the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution against “cruel and unusual punishment.” It puts Crews at risk of withdrawal, relapse and overdose, the ACLU said.

    The ACLU noted that the federal government already recognizes medication-assisted treatments like buprenorphine as the standard of care for opioid use disorder. Federal prosecutors have already launched investigations of state and local prisons or jails that similarly denied people such treatments. 

    Although this lawsuit blazes a trail at the federal level, this is not the first time the ACLU has taken legal action on this issue. Filter reported in 2018 on an ACLU lawsuit against county jails in Washington, Maine and Massachusetts.

    That action included the case of a man sent to jail in Essex County, MA who was denied methadone. The US District Judge of Massachusetts later issued an injunction ordering the sheriff to give the man his methadone. The judge said that denying it might violate the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    Cases such as these form part of a larger national movement to end the widespread denial of medication-assisted treatment—which reduces mortality for people with opioid use disorder by by half or more when used long term—to incarcerated people.

    In April this year, 58 current or former elected sheriffs, district attorneys and other officials across the US signed an open letter calling for universal access in in prisons and jails. They cited evidence that about 10 percent of people who die from drug overdose were released from institutions the month prior.

    In May, the ACLU also succeeded in forcing a rural county jail in Maine to give an incarcerated woman buprenorphine.

    Filter also reported in June on a similar crisis specifically facing transgender women in New York City’s jail system. For three years, people held in its Transgender Housing Unit (THU) were deprived of access to buprenorphine, methadone or naltrexone—even though these medications were available in men’s units. Transgender women were essentially forced to choose between being in a safe environment or receiving a lifesaving medicine. The City Council has since passed legislation to ensure equal access to these medicines in its jails.

    The US District Court in Kansas City will hear arguments on September 11 to help determine Leaman Crews’ future. Given its past record in arguing similar cases, the ACLU may well succeed in forcing the federal prison system to make lifesaving medication available.


    Image of USP Leavenworth facility via Bureau of Prisons.

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