USA: prison system faces federal lawsuit over opioid treatment limits

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts’ prison system faces a federal lawsuit challenging how it provides inmates with opioid addiction medications.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the law firm Goodwin Procter said Friday they filed suit in Boston federal court against the state Department of Correction on behalf of three people who had been prescribed addiction treatment medication prior to being incarcerated in state prison.

The organizations said the inmates were told they’d only receive their daily dose of buprenorphine for 90 days, after which it would be withdrawn.

They argue that the prison policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act’s protections for people suffering from opioid addiction.

The organizations said the inmates are effectively being forced to go through painful withdrawal and face an increased risk of relapse, overdose, and death without their medication.

They’ve asked the court to issue a temporary order requiring prison officials to provide the medication until the case is decided. A hearing on the request is slated for Monday in Boston federal court.

“The Massachusetts Department of Correction is forcing people to needlessly suffer,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, in a statement. “Public officials should support people in their efforts to overcome opioid addiction, not obstruct them.”

The department said Friday that it doesn’t have a policy restricting the dosage or length of treatment for opioid addiction medications. Any decisions about maintaining or discontinuing medications are made by Wellpath, the company it contracts for inmate healthcare services, it said.

Wellpath’s contract with the prison system calls for the continuation of opioid addiction medications unless an inmate voluntarily chooses to discontinue the treatment, or the company’s addiction specialist makes the determination, the department said.

Discontinuation of addiction treatment medicines is tapered and medically supervised, it added.

Massachusetts’ prisons have provided methadone for pregnant women for at least two decades, but the introduction of other federally-approved medications for opioid addiction such as naltrexone and buprenorphine have come in recent years.

Nearly 1,000 inmates have received addiction medications at state Department of Correction facilities this year, the agency said.

The federal court has already ordered other correctional facilities in Massachusetts to provide inmates opioid treatment medication, including the Essex County jail, according to the ACLU.

And the Federal Bureau of Prisons recently reached a settlement to provide methadone to an incarcerated Massachusetts woman, the organization said.