WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Massachusetts woman will become the first known person to win approval from the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to receive ongoing methadone treatment for her heroin addiction while she serves a sentence in federal prison.
The decision by the BOP to buck its own policy and provide Stephanie DiPierro with methadone on a regular basis could pave the way for other federal inmates who also have opioid addictions to receive treatments to help block cravings and avoid painful withdrawal symptoms.
DiPierro was due to start her 366-day prison term in April after pleading guilty to charges of defrauding public assistance programs.
But her sentence was delayed after she sued top BOP officials in federal court in March, saying that the government’s policy of denying her access to medication for addiction treatment would violate her Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment and her rights under the federal law that protects people with disabilities.
“This resolution affirms one basic principle: People suffering from substance use disorder deserve just treatment,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, whose group brought the lawsuit along with lawyers from Goodwin Procter.
A BOP spokesperson did not have an immediate comment on the settlement, which was filed late Friday in federal court in Massachusetts.
The BOP largely restricts federal inmates from access to medications used to treat drug addiction such as methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone.
Only pregnant women, inmates needing pain management and inmates undergoing detox treatment can receive methadone in federal prisons, but they cannot use it for ongoing treatment.
Buprenorphine and naltrexone are also heavily restricted.
But while federal inmates are prohibited from receiving medication for addiction treatment, the Justice Department has taken steps to pressure state prisons to provide access to the same treatments that it denies its own federal prisoners.
Last year, the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts launched a probe into the state’s prison system for violating the American with Disabilities Act by denying inmates access to drugs to treat opioid addiction.
The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis in a 2017 report promoted the use of drug treatments for addiction.
The opioid epidemic has devastated communities across the United States.
In 2017 alone, U.S. government data shows that prescription pain treatments, heroin and the more potent synthetic drug fentanyl led to 47,600 deaths.
Opioid-related deaths are even higher among those who are recently released from prison, as many often relapse and overdose because their bodies developed less tolerance for the drugs.
One study by DiPierro’s home state of Massachusetts found that the opioid-related overdose death rate is 120 times higher for inmates released from prison or jail, compared with the regular adult population.
Whether BOP will move to make drug addiction treatment available to all opioid-addicted inmates remains to be seen.
But a handful of federal court cases involving state or local prisons that denied access to substance abuse treatments could give all inmates hope - including one in Massachusetts ordering a sheriff to provide an inmate with methadone and another in Maine requiring a county jail to provide an inmate with opioid addiction drug treatment.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Kim Coghill
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