People who are addicted to opioids and booked into the Whatcom County Jail are denied treatment for their addiction, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the Washington state chapter of the ACLU.
The lawsuit asks a judge to require the jail to provide medication assisted treatment for inmates addicted to opioids.
As the U.S. is in the midst of an opioid addiction epidemic
, the case, if successful, could put pressure on other correctional facilities to provide similar treatment.
In Whatcom County, unless an inmate is pregnant, the jail denies inmates access to medication assisted treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine, which is sold under the brand names Suboxone and Subutex. Now, inmates are essentially forced to go cold turkey, the lawsuit filed against Whatcom County and the Sheriff's Office says.
Whatcom County's refusal to allow such treatment is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the lawsuit, because opioid addiction, also called opioid use disorder, is considered a disability under the law. The policy to deny opioid addiction treatment subjects inmates to unnecessary and painful withdrawal and increases their risk for relapse and overdose after they're released, according to the lawsuit.
Although opioid addiction treatment in correctional facilities across the country is rare
, the Spokane County Jail is one exception.
For about the past year, the jail has partnered with the Spokane Regional Health District to allow those already participating in the SRHD's opioid treatment program to continue with treatment while in jail, says Sgt. Tom Hill.
"We've built a system where we can identify who is in the program and notify the health district," Hill says. "We didn't want anybody to miss a dose."
Through the partnership, SRHD employees go to the jail seven days per week to administer medication for opioid addiction, including methadone, buprenorphine and naloxone, says Misty Challinor, interim director of the treatment program. Challinor says they serve 12 to 20 inmates on any given day.
Jail staff will also notify the health district if an inmate is exhibiting withdrawal symptoms, Challinor says, and they work to get that person into the program as quickly as possible.
The health district's treatment program requires daily doses of opioid addiction medication, weekly counseling and a valid ID.
The Spokane County Jail has had a similar program for pregnant women for years, Hill says. Additionally, jail officials are close to implementing a separate treatment program using buprenorphine for those people who qualify.
Both methadone and buprenorphine bind to opioid receptors in the brain, but block the euphoric effects and prevent withdrawal symptoms associated with opioid use disorder.
The delay in implementing the new program, according to Hill, is logistical. An inmate would need to be observed for about 10 minutes after taking the medication, he says, and for a jail operating "at bare minimum staffing," that can present a problem.
"It's a matter of finding a place and a person to supervise the administration of this treatment," he says. "It's only a bump in the road, and we're really close to accomplishing it."
Last month, Patrick Flynn, 36, attempted suicide in the Spokane County Jail
, and later died in the hospital. Family members believe he may have been experiencing withdrawal from heroin when he decided to end his life.
Hill declined to comment on Flynn's situation specifically, but says "I absolutely think that people in his position will benefit from this program. You can imagine there's a certain amount of depression from being sick from heroin or opiate withdrawal, and I think that goes to our sense of urgency on this. We really think this can make a difference."
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo tells the Bellingham Herald
that his office has been considering a plan to implement a three to five-day Suboxone treatment program. Elfo told the Herald
that he hopes to start the treatment program in July.
The ACLU lawsuit is filed on behalf of two people who were incarcerated in Whatcom County and were denied opioid addiction treatment. ACLU attorneys are seeking class action status, which would include include anyone with opioid use disorder previously incarcerated in Whatcom County Jail, or anyone who will be incarcerated there in the future.