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Boston Inmates in Civil Suit over Denied MAT

by Ash Arjan

Many prisoners in America’s criminal justice system find themselves behind bars for drug-related offenses while their body is actively dependent on opioids. For most of these inmates, it means they are at risk of developing painful and debilitating withdrawal symptoms exposing them to future relapse, overdose, and even death when not provided with treatment options during their incarceration. Their desperate pursuit to acquire life-saving medications like methadone, naltrexone and buprenorphine, often through illegal means, can also put them at risk of DOC disciplinary measures, prolonged incarceration, or retaliation.

Three inmates initially incarcerated in Cedar Junction prison in South Walpole, MA claim they were unfairly and continually denied federally recognized medication-assisted treatment. The inmates allege that they’ve only received a reduced dose of 8mg of Suboxone® for a 90-day period, and were being entirely denied of their treatment at Norfolk upon their recent transfers. The situation urged them to file a civil suit against the state and DOC, targeting Commissioner Carol Mici and superintendents. The DOC denies that their policy is to reduce prisoner’s dosages upon intake and says that inmates are able to receive MAT as long as it’s medically necessary.

The prisoner’s attorneys immediately called for a preliminary injunction against the DOC that would require the state to make these medications for opioid use disorder available to them at Norfolk prison until their hearings in January. The defendant’s relatives and more than four physicians filed declarations in support of the preliminary injunction and were successful in their pursuit.

The ACLU has gotten involved in this case, as denying these prisoners treatment would go against the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. The injunction has enabled two of the three inmates to receive their properly dosed MAT where they are currently situated. The other defendant was taken off of his treatment entirely upon transfer but will now have the option to resume his treatment. Until their next hearing, the prisoners are not to be transferred to any facility without their MAT and will remain in treatment as long as the DOC’s medical provider deems it necessary. Their next hearing regarding the suit was scheduled for January.

Those supporting MAT in America’s prison systems feel that recognizing addiction as a disease like any other should entitle people to medical treatment, even if they are incarcerated. ACLU cases like Sclafani v. Mici may set precedence for other prisons that face scrutiny for inhumanely denying MAT to inmates with opioid use disorder. Changes like these that are occurring at a systematic level may prove to be a glimmer of hope in battling the continuing opioid epidemic across the country.

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