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Essex County Sheriff Sued For Denying Inmates Medication-Assisted Opioid Treatment

A lawsuit has been filed against the Essex County House of Correction in Middleton and its sheriff over the jail's refusal to provide methadone, a drug used in opioid addiction treatment, to inmates.

The suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Goodwin Proctor LLP was filed Wednesday on behalf of 32-year-old Geoffrey Pesce, of Ipswich, and seeks to force Sheriff Kevin Coppinger and other jail officials to give Pesce methadone — a drug he has taken for the past two years to treat his addiction.

Pesce is expected to be sentenced Monday to serve 60 days in the Middleton House of Correction for driving with a suspended license.

"We talk a good game about treating addiction as a public health issue, but the reality on the ground is that we still deal with it largely through punishment," said Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "When the state takes away somebody's lifesaving treatment, that risks turning a 60-day sentence into a death sentence."

The ACLU argues denying medication-assisted treatment to those incarcerated is unconstitutional and a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. It is asking Coppinger to either provide the methadone to Pesce or transport him to the methadone clinic during his sentence.

A spokesman for Coppinger says the office is reviewing the suit and does not comment on pending litigation. The Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Policies about providing addiction medication to those behind bars are changing in Massachusetts, although some might say they're not changing fast enough to deal with the opioid epidemic.

Five Massachusetts county jails are expected to begin a pilot program next year to offer addiction medications to those incarcerated. Essex County is not among those jails.

Federal officials already are investigating the denial of addiction medication in Massachusetts prisons. The Department of Justice is reviewing complaints about prisons that are denying medications and whether that's a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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