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Judge Rules Essex County Jail Must Give Man Methadone For Opioid Addiction

In this 2017 file photo, the CEO of a methadone clinic holds a 35 mg liquid dose of methadone in Rossville, Ga. (Kevin D. Liles/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this 2017 file photo, the CEO of a methadone clinic holds a 35 mg liquid dose of methadone in Rossville, Ga. (Kevin D. Liles/AP)

When Geoffrey Pesce goes to jail soon, he'll be doing so with medication used to treat his opioid addiction that he sued Massachusetts jail officials to get.

A U.S. District Court judge in Boston issued a temporary injunction Monday in the lawsuit filed in September by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Goodwin Proctor LLP. The judge ruled that jail officials in Middleton must give Pesce, 32, his doctor-prescribed methadone while he serves his sentence.

Pesce must serve at least 60 days at the Essex County House of Correction in Middleton for driving with a suspended license, and thus violating his probation in another driving incident.

Pesce has an opioid use disorder and has overdosed several times. He's been in recovery for two years, and his legal team has argued methadone "saved his life." The drug is a method of opioid addiction treatment.

U.S. District Court Judge Denise Casper said the court considered the likelihood that Pesce's case would succeed on it merits, the likelihood he would suffer irreparable harm, and whether relief was in the public interest.

According to Casper's ruling, Essex County correction officials cited "generalized" potential safety and security concerns over distributing narcotics associated with opioid treatment, but failed to offer "specific security concerns relevant to Pesce's proposed methadone intake."

The Essex County sheriff's department released a statement on the judge's ruling Tuesday afternoon saying officials are "looking for the best approach to assist inmates fighting their addictions."

"Currently, there are no correctional facilities in Massachusetts providing methadone to male inmates," Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger said in the statement. "Due to the potential far-ranging effects of Judge Casper’s decision, both statewide and nationally, we are carefully reviewing it to determine our next steps."

Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said corrections officials lack of specifics in their arguments was indeed a significant aspect of Casper's ruling.

"Essex County [officials] did not explain how any of their concerns would specifically relate to the type of treatment Mr. Pesce was seeking," Rossman said. "In Massachusetts, we do that for women who are pregnant and incarcerated. And the judge held that the defendants did not put forward any reason why they wouldn't be able to do the same thing for Mr. Pesce in this case."

In the September lawsuit, the ACLU claimed denying Pesce's methadone treatment would have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

"By denying him his treatment," Rossman said, "they were forcing Mr. Pesce to be in a situation where he would be put at a high risk of relapse, overdose and death."

Pesce has a hearing next Monday in his driving case. He could face up to two-and-a-half years in jail.

As WBUR previously reported, five Massachusetts county jails are set to begin a pilot program next year to offer more addiction treatment medications to inmates.

Essex County House of Correction in Middleton already permits inmates to use the opioid addiction medication naltrexone — a shot that lasts about a month — shortly before their release. The jail has a blanket policy against all other medication-assisted opioid treatments.

For now, his attorneys say Pesce will be the only incarcerated person at the Middleton corrections facility allowed to receive continuous methadone treatment under medical supervision.

With additional reporting from Michael P. Norton of State House News Service and The Associated Press

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Quincy Walters Twitter Reporter
Quincy Walters is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.

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