ACLU files civil rights suit, says Whatcom County jail policy violates U.S. law

Maximum security cell block at the Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham.
Maximum security cell block at the Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald file

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Wednesday against the Whatcom County Jail and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office for allegedly denying inmates with opioid use disorder access to medication.

The lawsuit filed in Seattle in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington alleges the jail has a policy of refusing to provide access to medication assisted treatment to treat opioid addiction, which violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Opioid use disorder is classified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is also a recognized substance use disorder. A person qualifies as having opioid use disorder if they meet two or more criteria that reflect impaired health function over a 12-month period.

The lawsuit alleges that the jail has a policy for giving medication, such as buprenorphine (Suboxone or Subutex), or methadone, to pregnant women suffering from opioid use disorder, but has no policy for non-pregnant individuals, forcing them to go into withdrawal once they’re booked.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of two inmates who were receiving medication assisted treatment before they became incarcerated, but the ACLU is seeking class-action status for all non-pregnant people incarcerated who have opioid use disorder.

“Defendants’ policy and practice of denying medications to treat opioid use disorder to non-pregnant individuals is both dangerous and discriminatory,” according to the complaint filed in the case."It singles out a particularly vulnerable group of disabled people, forces them to suffer unnecessarily from painful opioid withdrawal, and subjects them to an increased risk of relapse and overdose death."

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said Thursday he believed several other jails in Washington state are under scrutiny by the ACLU for opioid treatment. He said they county had not been served with the lawsuit yet as of Thursday afternoon, but noted the ACLU has 20 days to do so.

"We don't have the space to segregate those people who are withdrawing from addictions at this time due to the configuration and lack of space. We can comment more when we've seen the lawsuit, seen what's alleged and see what practices we've been asked to modify," Elfo said.

Elfo said the 2019 opening of a new 32-bed crisis triage center for people suffering from mental health and substance use disorders will provide an alternative to taking people who use opioids to jail, and give them access to treatment.

"This is something that's been asked for for 20 years. I'm glad it's something that's finally on the horizon," he said.

The project will expand the current Crisis Triage Center and will be on Division Street in Bellingham. It will cost up to an estimated $9.5 million.

More than half million people have died between 2000 and 2015 from opioids. Today, opioid deaths are considered an epidemic. To understand the struggle individuals undergo once addicted to these drugs, we take a closer look at what happens to your

Denver Pratt: 360-715-2236, @DenverPratt