NY County Sued for Illegally Denying Person OUD Meds in Jail

    A lawsuit accuses a New York county jail of repeatedly denying a man held there his medication for opioid use disorder (OUD), forcing him into painful withdrawal. The facility allegedly broke laws that require corrections officers to allow detainees such medication.

    The case concerns 26-year-old Koree Wilson. Diagnosed with OUD in 2019, he was treated by his hospital with daily doses of methadone. Then, in 2020, he was incarcerated for 14 days at the Fulton County Correctional Facility (FCCF) in Johnstown, in Upstate New York. During this period, he was allegedly denied his medication for days.

    The lawsuit, filed February 22, states that Wilson “was only provided methadone after a several-day delay during which he underwent horrific withdrawal symptoms while begging for his medication. FCCF forced Mr. Wilson to stop taking his OUD medication for this several-day period without any medical justification or even any medical consultation. FCCF did so despite knowing full well about his OUD diagnosis and prescribed medication and his repeated pleas.”

    The situation was reportedly so traumatizing that Wilson was scared to go back to treatment even after release, worrying that he could be cut off in future.

    It didn’t end there. In 2021, Wilson returned to the same jail for nearly a month, and was allegedly denied methadone the entire time—despite his mother, attorneys and even treatment providers asking officers to let him resume treatment.

    In 2022, he was sent back to the same jail and reported being cut off from his medicine yet again. His attorneys told FCCF that it was legally obligated to provide him methadone, but said the facility ignored this. That October, he was transferred to a state prison, Mohawk Correctional Facility, which normally provides methadone treatment. But the prison’s policy only offered the medication to people who were already being treated. So because of FCCF’s actions, the lawsuit states, Wilson was also denied medicine at the Mohawk prison.

    The whole situation was reportedly so traumatizing for Wilson that he was scared to go back to treatment even after he was released, worrying that he could be cut off in the future and forced into withdrawal.

    The lawsuit describes the pain Wilson went through, and how losing his meds made him “experience withdrawal symptoms, including excessive perspiration and suicidal thoughts… [He] repeatedly communicated to FCCF staff that his withdrawal symptoms were escalating, including that he was experiencing amplified anxiety, racing pulse, difficulty eating and sleeping, and the feeling of needing to bang his head against a wall.”

    “It signals to other jails and prisons that people have rights.”

    One of the lead lawyers on the case explained that while goal is to secure damages for Wilson as recompense for the suffering he endured, the case can have a much wider impact.

    “It does signal to other jails and prisons that people have rights,” Rebekah Joab, senior staff attorney at Legal Action Center, told Filter. “And jails and prisons have responsibilities and are liable under these federal and state laws when they don’t provide medications, and not doing so has extremely harmful consequences for people, and you can be sued for money damages.”

    Wilson’s lawyers say that jail officials violated New York human rights law, federal disability law and the United States Constitution.

    “There is precedent that failure to provide access to medications for opioid use disorder, including methadone and buprenorphine, is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and constitutional law, mainly the eighth and 14th amendments that prohibit ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’” Joab said.

    This issue has sparked other legal and political battles in New York over the years. In 2021, the ACLU sued Jefferson County, aiming to force the jail there to provide OUD medications to incarcerated people—a crucial means of reducing the acute vulnerability to overdose of people released with lowered opioid tolerance, as well as preventing unnecessary suffering while people are detained.

    This case resulted in an important 2022 decision by a district court, ordering the county to provide these treatments for anyone receiving them at the time of their detention.

    Filter also reported on a separate case in Broome County, in 2021. Having announced it would begin offering OUD medications, that local jail was then accused by incarcerated people to be denying them their treatment, and reportedly physically restrained one man who was in withdrawal for 12 hours.

    Cases like these helped build the political case that a change in law was needed. In May 2021, the State Assembly passed a historic bill, SB 1795, to specifically require all jails and prisons to ensure access to these medicines. It took effect in October 2022 (after the events described in the Wilson lawsuit).

    “Implementation of New York’s law is not complete or full.”

    But prisons and jails seem to have resisted following that law—and on a discriminatory basis, which the law specifically forbade.

    According to an October 2023 report from the state corrections department, OUD medication is harder to access if you have darker skin. White people, only 23 percent of the state prison population, comprised 61 percent of treatment recipients. Only 10 percent of recipients were Black, despite 49 percent of the prison population being Black.  

    Joab explained that this information is only available about state prisons; it’s even harder to know what county jails are doing, because they don’t report to a central agency.

    “Implementation of that [law] is not complete or full,” Joab said. “People still don’t have access to all forms of medication. It’s very important people have immediate access and aren’t waiting for them, because withdrawal can start in a matter of hours.”


    Photograph via Iowa Department of Corrections

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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