BOSTON (CN) – Denial of methadone to prison inmates with opioid addictions constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, the ACLU claimed in federal court Wednesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Essex County Sheriff’s Department in the U.S. District of Massachusetts on behalf of prisoner Geoffrey Pesce, asking that he receive a daily treatment of methadone while he serves an expected 60-day sentence for driving on a suspended license.
“Denying medication-assisted treatment to incarcerated people with opioid use disorder is both unsafe and unlawful,” Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “To someone with a life-threatening medical condition, treatment isn’t optional – it’s critical. Public officials should support people in their efforts to overcome opioid addiction, not obstruct them.”
“If Mr. Pesce is not provided his prescribed methadone, he will enter acute withdrawal, which is extremely painful and carries a heightened risk for numerous serious medical conditions,” Pesce’s attorneys state in his complaint. “Further, there is a high probability that cessation of Mr. Pesce’s prescribed methadone treatments will result in a relapse into opioid use either during or immediately following his incarceration, accompanied by elevated risk of overdose and death. Mr. Pesce is particularly afraid of this outcome because his former roommate died of an overdose shortly after he was released from Middleton HOC [house of corrections].”
According to the 18-page complaint, Pesce’s license was suspended for a non-violent, drug-related charge that occurred before Pesce went into recovery.
Pesce must go to a clinic every three days to get a small supply of methadone. Although his relatives drive him, he ended up without transportation one day due to a neighbor’s death.
In a desperate attempt to avoid relapse, Pesce drove himself and police stopped him for going six miles over the speed limit, according to the complaint. That led to his incarceration for driving without a valid license.
He expects to serve a mandatory minimum sentence of 60 days in the Middleton House of Corrections after a sentencing hearing scheduled for September 24.
Pesce has been in recovery for two years with the help of doctor-prescribed medication, but the Middleton House of Corrections refuses to provide medical treatment to people with opioid use disorder, including those who arrive with a prescription for such medication and are already in sustained recovery, according to a press release from the ACLU of Massachusetts.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that opioid use has been steadily dropping since 2016, largely as a result of medication-assisted treatment programs. This week, U.S. Health and Human Services awarded $1 billion in grants to programs dedicated to combating opioid addiction.
Pesce’s lawsuit claims denial of medication to those with opioid addiction violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. It also argues the practice violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits the disparate treatment of people in substance abuse recovery programs.
A spokesperson with the Essex County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to a voice mail requesting comment Wednesday.