WATERTOWN — The New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project filed suit against Jefferson County on Monday for its denial of prescribed medication to people with opioid use disorder in the county jail.
The civil liberties unions, on behalf of a Watertown man identified as P.G. in court documents, filed a federal lawsuit Monday in United States District Court, Northern District of New York, against Jefferson County, county Sheriff Colleen M. O’Neill, county Undersheriff Brian R. McDermott and Mark Wilson, the facility administrator at Jefferson County Correctional Facility.
The suit claims the county jail’s “blanket” denial of prescribed medication to people with opioid use disorder, including methadone, is discriminatory and is a life-endangering policy. The complaint states P.G. brings the court action under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fourteenth Amendment, Eighth Amendment and New York state Civil Rights and Human Rights Law.
P.G., according to the complaint, is a 35-year-old man who lives in Watertown and has been diagnosed with opioid use disorder, or OUD, for which he’s prescribed daily treatment with methadone. He has been addicted to opioids for more than 15 years — nearly his entire adult life — the complaint states.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines opioid use disorder as “a problematic pattern of opioid use that causes significant impairment or distress.”
P.G. is facing imminent detention at the county jail because he allegedly violated his probation. It remains unclear what P.G. is on probation for, but the complaint states that in December of last year, his probation officer told him he would be arrested soon and that he should expect to be committed to the county jail.
The suit is asking the court, among other things, that P.G. continue to have access to his prescribed methadone treatment during his detention, including the creation of a discharge plan to ensure continued treatment upon his release, as well as reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.
“I have been fighting to overcome my opioid addiction for over a decade, and I have tried so many different treatments and programs along the way. Nothing was effective until I was prescribed methadone,” P.G. said in a prepared statement about the lawsuit. “Receiving methadone treatment has changed my life. I’m drug-free, I have a stable job, and I just purchased a home. For the first time in years, I have hope for the future, but all of that could be lost if my medication is interrupted.”
The complaint states that for years, Jefferson County has had an official policy or custom of “categorically” denying methadone treatment for opioid use disorder to people in the jail’s custody unless they are pregnant.
“This blanket ban on methadone treatment not only permits but in fact requires that the jail deny methadone treatment to non-pregnant people, regardless of the consequences,” the complaint states.
Both lieutenants at the county jail could not be reached Monday for comment or to confirm this is policy at the jail.
The complaint claims that a large portion of incarcerated people have opioid use disorder. Roughly 80% of people in jails and prisons have a history of substance use, according to the complaint, and 18.9% of sentenced people in local jails nationwide self-report that they regularly used opioids prior to incarceration.
This is why MOUD — medication for opioid use disorder — is “critical” in jail settings, the complaint states, as people with opioid use disorder face a “dramatically heightened risk of relapse, overdose, and death in the weeks immediately following release.”
The complaint claims that without intervention from the court, Jefferson County jail officials “will use their blanket methadone ban to strip P.G. of his prescribed treatment, disregarding sound medicine, including the broad consensus in the scientific community and the express judgment of his treating physician.
“The effects on P.G. of sudden, forcible withdrawal from methadone cannot be overstated,” the complaint further states. “They will be immediate. They will be excruciating. And they will expose him to a substantial risk of death.”