Woman Sues To Continue Methadone Treatment In Prison

By Kelly Burch 03/19/19

"I am afraid for my life and my safety if the Bureau of Prisons withholds medicine that I know I need,” the woman said in court filings. 

woman in court to sue for the right to use methadone in prison

For Stephanie DiPierro, methadone has been a lifesaving treatment. It helped her get sober from an opioid addiction in 2005, and since then has helped her stay away from illegal opioids.

Now, DiPierro is suing the federal prison system for her right to use methadone while she serves her sentence. 

“Methadone gave me my life back,” DiPierro wrote in court filings, according to The New York Times. She said that without methadone, her life is at risk. “I will lose control of my addiction and I will relapse, overdose and die.”

Next month, DiPierro, who has bipolar disorder and anxiety, is set to start serving a year-long prison sentence. However, she argues that the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ ban on inmates (other than pregnant women) using methadone amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. 

In court filings she wrote, “I am afraid of what it will mean to lose my methadone treatment at the exact moment when I am put in the most anxiety-producing situation of my life. I am afraid for my life and my safety if the Bureau of Prisons withholds medicine that I know I need.”

DiPierro is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. ACLU staff lawyer Jessie Rossman says that in addition to being cruel and unusual punishment, denying DiPierro methadone treatment is discrimination. 

“The Bureau of Prisons is denying her a reasonable accommodation for her disability, and also discriminating between different disabilities. Inmates with chronic conditions like diabetes are allowed to continue to take their medically necessary treatment,” Rossman said. “What’s now coming across loud and clear is that the standard of care to treat opioid use disorder is medication-assisted treatment, and it’s ineffective and unlawful to prevent individuals from accessing their treatment and medication for that disease.”

Jails and prisons generally do not allow methadone. Some argue that this is because methadone is an opioid that can be diverted and abused, while others argue that it’s an arbitrary rule based on discrimination against people with substance use disorder. 

Last year, Rossman represented a Massachusetts inmate who was looking to continue methadone treatment in county jail. A district court judge in Massachusetts issued a ruling that denying inmates methadone treatment is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Former head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Michael Botticelli, executive director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center, told The New York Times that the ruling would likely set the stage for far-reaching change. 

“One thing this ruling says is that, one way or another, either by legislation or by legal mandate, jails and prisons are going to have to do this,” he said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.