Portland – The ACLU is urging jails and prisons throughout New England to provide medication for addiction treatment (MAT) to incarcerated people who are suffering from opioid use disorder. In a letter sent to every Sheriff’s Office or jail in three New England states, the ACLU of Maine, the ACLU of Massachusetts, and the ACLU of New Hampshire call on officials to comply with the law and save lives by ensuring that people receive their prescribed medications for opioid use disorder while in the states’ custody. 

“We are encouraged to hear that some of you may already be moving toward providing access to all three forms of FDA-approved MAT in your facilities,” the ACLU writes in the letter. “This positive development is both required by the law and likely to save lives.” For those Sheriffs or jail superintendents “who are not yet making such changes, this letter notifies you that if your facility fails to provide MAT, it is putting its people at a severe risk of physical suffering and an increased risk of death, in violation of federal law and constitutional protections.”

Despite medical consensus that medication for addiction is the standard of care for opioid use disorder, MAT is not yet available in numerous prisons and jails nationwide. The ACLU has argued that withholding MAT in correctional settings violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“These types of medications are lifesaving drugs for those that are diagnosed with opioid use disorder – and no matter if they are incarcerated or not, people deserve access to their prescribed medication,” said Henry Klementowicz, staff attorney at the ACLU of New Hampshire. “We’re pleased that there have been positive changes as some jails and prisons in New Hampshire administer these vital medications, but many do not. We urge them to comply with the law and save lives in doing so.”

Federal courts have recently required facilities in Massachusetts and Maine to provide this treatment to incarcerated people with opioid use disorder. In a November 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts victory, a federal court ordered Essex County to provide a Massachusetts man with continued access to his methadone during his sentence. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that the Aroostook County Jail would be required to provide a Maine woman with medication for addiction treatment for her substance use disorder while she was in their custody.

Consistent with these cases, other federal and local correctional facilities have agreed to settle legal claims to provide MAT in their facilities; most recently, the Federal Bureau of Prisons entered a final settlement agreement to provide a Massachusetts woman her prescribed methadone treatment throughout the course of her incarceration.

“The resolutions of these cases reflect more examples of the shift towards jails recognizing their legal and moral obligation to provide lifesaving medical care to people with opioid use disorder,” said Jessie Rossman, staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Public officials throughout New England and across the country should do all they can to support people in their efforts to overcome opioid use disorder, not obstruct them.”

“Jails and prisons must provide incarcerated people with appropriate medical care for opioid use disorder, just like any other serious medical condition,” said Emma Bond, staff attorney at the ACLU of Maine. “When people in recovery get the care they need while in jail, they are less likely to relapse, less likely to overdose, and less likely to die upon release.”

In addition to some facilities in Massachusetts and Maine, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections and Vermont Department of Corrections have proved that these policies are feasible. In 2016, Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to offer medication for addiction treatment to incarcerated people at all of its state facilities. Last spring, Vermont passed a law requiring state facilities to continue MAT for people in state custody.

The ACLU letter was mailed and emailed this week to sheriffs and/or jails in every Maine county.

For more information about Smith v. Aroostook County, go to: https://www.aclumaine.org/en/cases/smith-v-aroostook-county