Man Sues Prison For Addiction Medication Access

By Keri Blakinger 07/30/18

The 30-year-old at the center of the suit started using painkillers as a teen and was prescribed Suboxone five years ago.

Zachary Smith
Zachary Smith says if not for buprenorphine, he'd "probably be dead." Photo via Bangor Daily News

Last week, the ACLU sued Maine’s prisons and one county jail over their continued refusal to give addiction medication to inmates.

Zachary Smith, who is scheduled to go to prison in September, filed a federal lawsuit targeting the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office and Maine Department of Corrections, claiming violations of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and also of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“Denying needed medication to people with opioid use disorders serves absolutely no good purpose, and actually undermines the important goal of keeping people off of opiates,” ACLU of Maine legal director Zachary Heiden said in a statement. “Going to prison shouldn’t be an automatic death sentence, but that is the chance we take when we cut prisoners off from adequate medical care.”

Failure to provide medication can lead to painful forced withdrawal and increase the risk of overdose. 

The 30-year-old at the center of the suit started using painkillers as a teen and was prescribed Suboxone five years ago. “If I did not get on buprenorphine I’d probably be dead,” he told the Bangor Daily News

He was denied access to his medication last year during a short stint in the county jail. So, once he knew he had prison time in his future—a nine-month sentence for domestic assault—Smith and the ACLU wrote a letter to the state’s correctional system requesting that he continue to receive his medication behind bars.

When they got no response, they filed suit.

Although medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is considered the standard of care on the outside, many county jails and state prisons refuse to provide it. In Maine, according to the Bangor paper, only Knox County Jail provides Suboxone, though the Penobscot County Jail offers another alternative, the injectable treatment Vivitrol. 

Prison officials declined to comment.

“If we’re being sued, I can’t speak about that,” Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick told the Press Herald. “Once they’ve filed, I’m not able to comment.”

Though the legal action could be ground-breaking for Maine prisoners, it’s not the first of its kind. In June, the ACLU of Washington launched a class-action suit against a jail there for denying inmates access to methadone and Suboxone as part of a policy the organization called “harmful, unwise and illegal.” 

“The ADA prohibits singling out a group of people because of their disability and denying them access to medical services to which they would otherwise be entitled,” the organization wrote at the time. “The Whatcom County Jail has a policy of denying people with (opioid use disorder) the medication they need while providing necessary medication to everyone else, which is discrimination.” 

Two months earlier, advocates in Massachusetts publicly pondered a lawsuit there, even as federal prosecutors announced an investigation into whether failure to provide addiction medications is a violation of the ADA. 

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.