By Christopher Zoukis
A federal judge in Boston has ordered officials at the Essex County House of Correction to allow an incoming inmate to take his doctor-prescribed methadone while he serves a sentence there. It was thought to be the first such order issued by an American judge.
Geoffrey Pesce, a 32-year-old resident of Ipswich, Massachusetts, faces a sentence of at least 60 days in the local jail for driving with a suspended license and so violating the probation he received for an earlier driving offense.
After several overdoses, Pesce has been in active recovery for two years for opioid addiction, and his treating physicians have prescribed methadone. Ironically, on the day he was arrested for driving without a license, he was on his way to the methadone clinic, after his regular ride there became unavailable. His medical history shows treatments other than methadone have not been able to succeed in countering his addiction.
Massachusetts jails do not routinely allow inmates to access methadone, an opioid used to help addicts avoid more powerful opiates like heroin. An exception is made or pregnant inmates already using methadone, because withdrawal could harm the fetus. Earlier this year, the state did enact legislation creating pilot programs in five counties to provide medication-assisted treatment programs for inmates by September next year; Essex County is not one of those counties, however.
In September, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Goodwin Proctor law firm sued the county sheriff and the jail director on Pesce’s behalf, claiming the jail’s refusal to let him take the prescribed methadone violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and was cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment. ACLU chapters have also filed similar lawsuits in Maine and Washington State.
Pesce’s legal team argued denying their client his prescribed methadone treatment would face him with higher risks of relapse, overdose and death backed up by the opinion of the physician treating Pesce for his addiction.
On November 26, federal district court judge Denise Casper granted a temporary injunction ordering that Pesce is allowed to take methadone while serving his jail sentence.
She rejected what she termed jail officials’ “generalized” security and safety objections to handling opioids because they failed to identify specific problems with accommodating Pesce’s request. Nor did the county officials explain, the judge noted, why they could not handle Pesce’s case by making the same type of arrangements available for pregnant inmates already using methadone.
For those reasons, the judge said, Pesce seemed likely to win the lawsuit, and with the possible danger to him and lack of counterbalancing harm to the state, it justified issuing the temporary injunction. Responding to the order, the county sheriff said his office was carefully reviewing it, because of its “potential far-ranging effects… both statewide and nationally.”
The statement from Sheriff Kevin Coppinger also said administering opioid drugs in a prison setting “raises many security, logistical and fiscal concerns” that don’t exist for persons outside incarceration. Since the injunction in Pesce v. Coppinger was issued at a preliminary stage of the trial, it not yet a final decision or binding precedent.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.