Maine Jail Must Provide Prisoner With Opioid Treatment, Court Rules

By Paul Gaita 05/10/19

The ACLU challenged the decision to halt treatment, saying that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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prisoner in Maine jail

A Massachusetts federal court has ruled that a county jail in Maine cannot prevent a prisoner from receiving treatment for opioid dependency while serving her sentence.

Maine resident Brenda Smith was sentenced to 40 days in the Aroostook County Jail for theft, and was informed by jail officials that her twice-daily dose of buprenorphine would be interrupted during her sentence due to the possibility of trafficking the drug.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine fought the decision and won the right for Smith to continue her treatment. 

Smith's attorney, Emma Bond, called the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston a "big step forward in fighting [addiction] stigma and fighting that discrimination, and so it will be a big step forward in fighting the opioid crisis itself."

The ACLU challenged the jail's decision to halt Smith's treatment on the grounds that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, including drug dependency and rehabilitation—and the 8th Amendment of the Constitution, which prevents the imposition of excessive bail or "cruel and unusual punishments." 

The First Circuit court decision—the highest ruling to date on this particular issue—upheld a previous ruling by a federal judge in Maine, which ordered the Aroostook County Jail to provide Smith with treatment, "given the well-documented risk of death associated with opioid use disorder."

The problem of opioid dependency in U.S. jails is a rapidly growing concern. According to the National Sheriffs' Association, at least half of the nation's inmates suffer from some form of substance use disorder, including opioid use. Jail administrators across the country have voiced concerns like the officials at Aroostook County Jail about trafficking, cost and effectiveness.

NPR quoted Sally Friedman of the Legal Action Center in New York, who dismissed opposition to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) in jails by noting that the drug can be monitored, is not cost-prohibitive and has been proven as an effective means of preventing both relapse and overdose upon release. 

Bond also told NPR that the decision is a victory for all people behind bars who are struggling with substance use disorders.

"This is the first federal appeals court in the country to address the right to treatment for opioid addiction in jail," she said. "It represents a huge step forward in the fight against the opioid crisis and for our client, who will get her medication in jail."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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