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Lawsuit Challenges Lack of Medication Treatment for Substance Use Disorders in Va. Prisons

Gel capsules in packaging
In this July 23, 2018, photo, nurse Brian Toia holds tabs of buprenorphine, a drug which controls heroin and opioid cravings, as he prepares to administer the drug, known also by the brand name Suboxone, to selected inmates at the Franklin County Jail in Greenfield, Mass. American correctional institutions are slowly loosening resistance to giving inmates medication for their opioid addiction. (Photo:Elise Amendola/AP)

There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of opioid overdose deaths in prisons and jails over the last two decades. But despite those increases, many facilities do not permit clinically-proven medications for dependency.

A Virginia prisoner who is suing the state Department of Corrections for refusing to allow him to take medication for his opioid dependency, is now asking a federal appeals court to hear his case.

Jeremiah Chamberlain filed a complaint last year alleging that he suffers from Opioid Use Disorder and that the department’s policy of denying medications to treat OUD violates the Americans With Disabilities Act as well as the Rehabilitation Act.

“People suffering from OUD who are forced into withdrawal in a jail setting are placed at a higher risk from overdose death after release into the community, or while in VADOC,” he said in his complaint.

Chamberlain, who is representing himself in the case, initially sought relief on behalf of other prisoners in DOC custody who also suffer from Opioid Use Disorder. But the court barred Chamberlain from asserting claims on their behalf.

Doctors who treated Chamberlain say the two medications Chamberlain is requesting - methadone and buprenorphine - are not available in any VADOC facility.

Dr. Everett McDuffie, a contract psychiatrist who treated Chamberlain, said in an affidavit that Chamberlain does not need the medications he requests and “some offenders are better helped with abstinence.”

A federal report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found “There is overwhelming evidence that medication assisted treatment (MAT) is an effective intervention for addressing opioid use disorders (OUDs) in criminal justice and non-criminal justice populations.”

A few states, including Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts provide medication assisted treatment to prisoners. And prisoners in those states have waged successful legal battles in the pursuit of those treatments.

VPM reported earlier this week on a dramatic increase in opioid overdoses in prisons nationwide. Virginia falls near the middle of the pack in that rising rate of overdose deaths. In June 2019, eight prisoners at Haynesville Correctional Center overdosed on the same day.

A January 2020 VADOC report said despite security measures, drugs find a way into VADOC facilities resulting in prisoner overdoses and deaths. Since 2016, the report said at least 12 prisoners died of an overdose and hundreds more overdosed and were saved.

Lisa Kinney, a spokesperson for the VADOC, said all VADOC facilities are equipped with overdose reversal drug Naloxone.

Wanda Bertram, with the non-profit criminal justice think tank Prison Policy Initiative, said by some measures, the majority of people in prison are struggling with some form of substance abuse.

“I've heard from people in the criminal justice system who either don't have medication assisted treatment, never have, and it's not offered in [the] prison or jail that they're incarcerated in, or they are actually in a program, and then when they're incarcerated, the treatment is stopped,” Bertram said.

Bertram said others will be on medication while in prison and when they get out they’re unable to continue it, often because of the rules of their probation or parole.

“The fact that we not only choose to lock up people with drug issues in this country, but choose to lock them up in facilities that actively make it more likely that they're going to die of an overdose, I think is really an indictment of how the system works,” Bertram said. “It's a product of this country's, I think, deep disgust with drug users.”