The man at the center of a pivotal legal battle over access to methadone while incarcerated has been held in continuous solitary confinement for more than five months, in what the New York Civil Liberties Union alleges is retaliation for taking legal action.
In April 2021, as first reported by Filter, the NYCLU filed a lawsuit against three Jefferson County Correctional Facility officials on behalf of a 36-year-old man with opioid use disorder (OUD) who is identified in court documents as “P.G.” Anticipating arrest after an alleged probation violation in late 2020, P.G. knew this particular jail would strip him of his prescribed methadone because he’d been incarcerated there once before, and had been forced into withdrawal. He was terrified.
The NYCLU suit filed on his behalf argues that withholding medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) from incarcerated people violates constitutional and civil rights, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Jefferson County officials “sought to punish P.G. for pursuing this litigation, placing him in solitary confinement, where he remains to this day.”
Four days after P.G. was arrested in September, a judge issued a preliminary injunction in his favor, compelling jail staff to provide P.G. with his daily methadone for however long he was detained there. It was a landmark ruling for the Second Circuit, the Court of Appeals with jurisdiction in New York State.
What has not previously been public is what happened next. According to an NYCLU complaint filed on February 7, shortly after Jefferson County officials received the injunction they “sought to punish [P.G.] for pursuing this litigation, placing him in solitary confinement, where he remains to this day.”
Two weeks after he was first moved into isolation, P.G. filed an administrative grievance. It was denied two months later. He remained in isolation throughout. On February 1, 2022, following months of repeated pleas to be released from his “cramped” cell, P.G’s NYCLU counsel received confirmation that jail officials intended to maintain confinement “for as long as [they] are required to transport P.G. for daily methadone dosing outside the jail.”
They attribute his extended segregation to COVID precautions. Since the jail isn’t licensed to dispense methadone, the injunction means P.G. is escorted six mornings a week to the clinic he was attending prior to his arrest, which is a five-minute drive away. On Sundays and holidays, he is driven to a different facility about an hour away.
Antony Gemmell, a NYCLU senior staff attorney representing P.G., told Filter that the defense “reeks of bad faith.”
Both treatment sites already have “no-contact” protocols for mitigating COVID transmission. In addition, P.G. never actually goes inside, but waits in a designated outdoor area where staff wearing personal protective equipment bring him his methadone, which he consumes under socially distanced supervision.
The corrections officers who accompany P.G. to his methadone appointments are not required to quarantine.
“Everyone in the prison—the guards, administrators—go home at night. So they were out in the world,” New York State Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal told Filter. “By that logic, everyone should be in solitary.”
Except for methadone appointments and a 40-minute window every other day for phone calls and showers, P.G. remains in isolation. The United Nations defines solitary confinement as isolation of more than 22 hours per day, and defines isolation in excess of 15 consecutive days as torture.
The NYCLU is requesting that the court declare jail leadership to be in violation of the First Amendment and of state civil and human rights laws, and that it compel the defendants to cease retaliatory practices against P.G. immediately. A judge has not yet ruled on any of the new or ongoing allegations.
“Our goal is obviously for our client to be removed from solitary confinement,” Gemmell said. “That has absolutely no logical basis.”
In prolonged isolation, P.G.’s “mental health deteriorating by the day.”
According to the NYCLU complaint, multiple officers have openly characterized P.G.’s prolonged isolation as “punishment for his forcing the jail’s hand on his treatment.” Attorneys from Barclay Damon, the law firm representing the Jefferson County officials named in the suit, did not respond to Filter‘s requests for comment by publication time. Neither did a detective from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office.
“Jefferson County jail officials have responded to the Court’s ruling for P.G. in the worst possible way: by punishing P.G. for seeking life-sustaining medical treatment,” Gemmell said. Their “isolation of P.G.—which they have said will last indefinitely—is the definition of cruelty.”
The February 7 complaint states that under these inhumane conditions, P.G.’s “mental health [is] deteriorating by the day.”
Since fentanyl began saturating the illicit drug supply in the mid-2010s, P.G. has lost more than 10 former classmates to overdose, “including most of his close friends.” He himself narrowly survived an overdose after enduring forced withdrawal from his prescribed methadone while detained at another correctional facility, which banned the medication at that time.
“Methadone treatment has changed my life,” P.G. told Filter in April 2021, when the lawsuit began. “I’m drug-free, I have a stable job and I just purchased a home. For the first time in years, I have hope for the future, but all of that could be lost if my medication is interrupted.”
In October 2021, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation, sponsored by Rosenthal, to guarantee access to prescribed MOUD for people detained in jails and prisons across the state. The legislation has not yet taken effect.
Photograph via New York State Senate