Advocates May Sue Mass. Prisons Over Refusal To Provide Addiction Meds

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In this 2017 photo, a member of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections shows the confiscated drug Suboxone. (Charles Krupa/AP)
In this 2017 photo, a member of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections shows the drug Suboxone. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Advocates for those incarcerated in Massachusetts are considering filing suit because state correctional facilities do not provide addiction medications — even to those involuntarily committed to addiction treatment.

The potential litigation would focus on whether the Massachusetts Department of Correction is violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The advocates argue that because someone with a substance use disorder is considered disabled under the act, not continuing medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is discriminatory and a violation.

Leslie Walker, with Prisoners' Legal Services, says the litigation may also include anyone with a substance use disorder who is incarcerated.

“If someone is brought into prison on MAT, then having it be discontinued is a very serious violation of the ADA," Walker said. "Getting on MAT in prison is a different argument, less of a slam-dunk, if you will. We believe we'd be the first state in the country to bring that kind of litigation."

Two weeks ago the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts said he is investigating whether state jails and prisons are violating the ADA by discontinuing addiction medications once someone is behind bars.

The state also uses correctional facilities to house some people who are civilly committed to addiction treatment, although they have not committed any crimes. Those Section 35 facilities do not offer all addiction medications.

State public safety officials have resisted using two of the three addiction medications, saying they're concerned about costs and the possibility of diversion of the medications methadone or buprenorphine for illicit use. Some correctional facilities do offer the drug naltrexone to those who are about to be released.

Recently in Rhode Island, in a first of its kind study, researchers found that offering all three addiction medications to those incarcerated reduced overdose deaths.

In Massachusetts, a proposed pilot program to offer the three medications behind bars was removed from the recently approved criminal justice reform bill. But some lawmakers, including state Rep. James O'Day, a Democrat from of West Boylston, say they'll try again.

“This is really targeted at trying to prevent people who are coming out of jail who are 12 times more likely to overdose," he said. "They come out and they go back to using. And I really think that because of where we are as a society today that we really need to focus on this. What we’re doing now isn’t working.”

O'Day says supporters may try to attach the same pilot proposal to another piece of legislation — possibly to the governor's opioid bill.

It’s not clear how many people the proposal might affect, although at least half those incarcerated in Massachusetts are believed to have a substance use disorder.

This article was originally published on April 10, 2018.

This segment aired on April 10, 2018.


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Deborah Becker 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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