The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has filed suit against the commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections and the acting Aroostook County Sheriff for denying medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to a prisoner with opioid use disorder.
The lawsuit is being brought on behalf of Zachary Smith of Caribou, who has been in recovery for more than five years.
After pleading guilty to criminal charges following a physical altercation with his father, Smith was recently sentenced to nine months and one day behind bars. It's not clear yet whether he'll serve his time in county jail or in prison.
Either way, his doctors say he'll be forced into acute withdrawal when he is unable to take his prescribed medication, and that forced withdrawal is medically inappropriate for someone being treated with MAT. Forced withdrawal increases the risk of relapse and makes it less likely that a prisoner will continue treatment once released.
Emma Bond, a staff attorney with the ACLU, says at least one jail in Maine is already making an exception for some inmates with opioid use disorder.
"Currently, in Cumberland County Jail in Maine Department of Corrections pregnant women are being prescribed the care they need, including medication-assisted treatment and that is what Zachary Smith deserves as well," Bond says.
The ACLU of Maine's lawsuit argues that denying adequate medical treatment violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the ADA, those with substance use disorders who are in treatment are classified as having a disability.
Some other states, including Rhode Island, have started offering medication-assisted treatment to prisoners in their care.
Reached by telephone, Corrections Commissioner Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick said he could not comment on pending litigation.