Judge Rules in Favor of New York Prisoner Suing for Methadone Access

    A District Court judge has issued a preliminary injunction to ensure that a 35-year-old Watertown, New York, resident can continue accessing his medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) while detained in Jefferson County Jail. It’s the first such ruling in the Second Circuit, the Court of Appeals that includes New York state.

    The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) told Filter that the man receiving methadone, referred to as P.G. in court documents, was arrested shortly before courts closed for Labor Day weekend. In April, Filter reported that the NYCLU and American Civil Liberties Union had begun litigation on P.G.’s behalf in anticipation of his arrest. (P.G’s probation officer had warned him in December 2020 that he could face rearrest due to an alleged probation violation).

    The civil rights groups sued the Jefferson County sheriff and undersheriff, as well as the jail administrator, alleging that the county was violating the New York State Civil Rights Law, the US Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act by preventing people from accessing MOUD while detained.

    On September 7, District Judge David M. Hurd granted an emergency order for the duration of P.G.’s time at Jefferson County Jail. P.G. had been arrested for the alleged probation violation a few days prior.

    Hurd also wrote that the lawsuit on P.G.’s behalf is likely to succeed—that Jefferson County Jail’s denial of methadone access violates both the Americans with Disabilities Act and 14th Amendment. Such a ruling would also be a first in the Second Circuit.

    “Upon review, P.G. has made a ‘clear’ showing that he could suffer irreparable harm if his treatment were interrupted,” Hurd wrote. “The uncontested evidence established that withdrawal from methadone treatment is excruciatingly painful, will cause a number of severe physical and mental symptoms, and will place plaintiff at a significantly heightened risk of relapse and death.

    The day after P.G.’s arrest, he was only taken to his methadone clinic after it had already closed for the day. 

    Jefferson County maintains that it has no official ban on methadone. “The jail is never going to deny appropriate medical treatments to an inmate,” Jefferson County Sheriff Colleen O’Neill told WWNY-TV after P.G.’s arrest.

    Yet, as Hurd wrote in his September 7 ruling, “the actual evidence in the record … establishes that the County does not provide methadone to non-pregnant people.”

    In a preliminary court hearing on July 8, an attorney for the county stated that if P.G. entered the jail, the county would offer daily transportation to the Watertown-based Credo Community Center, where P.G. was receiving methadone prior to his arrest.

    Credo had offered to provide him with a take-home dose for Sundays, when the center is closed. Jefferson County opposed this arrangement, and objected to staff providing P.G. with methadone to take while he was inside the jail.

    Caryn White, the director of Credo’s outpatient services, said in a declaration to the court that jail staff had previously administered methadone to pregnant prisoners from inside the facility. The Sheriff’s Department did not respond to Filter’s request for comment. It is not clear how pregnant prisoners received their methadone on Sundays and holidays. 

    On September 4, the day after P.G. was arrested, he was only taken to Credo after the facility had already closed for the day. 

    “I was able to reach out to contacts there and essentially ask them to stay open just for P.G., but that’s obviously not a sustainable solution,” NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Antony Gemmel told Filter. “And potentially had it not been for that lucky turn of events, P.G. would have begun withdrawing from methadone that day.”

    Gemmell said he hoped Hurd’s ruling would force jails around the state to ensure they’re facilitating MOUD access

    “County jails around the state should be taking a good hard look at this preliminary injunction decision,” Gemmell continued, “and deciding whether they think it is worth being taken to federal court just to continue someone’s treatment when the Constitution already requires it.”

    Both chambers of the New York legislature have passed a bill that would require the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and Commission of Corrections to create an MOUD program “for state correctional facilities and local jails.” 

    The bill has not yet been sent to Governor Kathy Hochul’s desk, but is expected to arrive soon. “We’re reviewing the legislation and don’t have further comment at this time,” Hochul’s office told Filter.



    Photograph of lock box containing methadone bottles by Helen Redmond

    • Daniel is a freelance reporter whose work has been published in outlets including Fortune, The Appeal and Gothamist. He will FOIA documents related to criminal justice if you ask nicely. He lives in Brooklyn.

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