After settling Whatcom jail lawsuit, ACLU seeks medical opioid treatment in prison

In April, the American Civil Liberties Union settled a federal civil rights lawsuit it filed against the Whatcom County Jail and Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, and the jail agreed to provide inmates with medication-assisted treatment to treat opioid use disorder.

Now the ACLU of Washington is trying to do the same with a similar lawsuit filed against the federal Bureau of Prisons.

The Washington chapter of the ACLU announced in a press release Thursday, Sept. 19, that it has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons on behalf of Melissa Godsey, challenging the Bureau of Prisons’ policy to refuse medical-assisted treatment, even though inmates receive clinically appropriate medications for other ailments.

“People taking doctor-prescribed medications have a right to continue those medications while incarcerated,” ACLU-Washington staff attorney Lisa Nowlin said in the release. “This is as true for someone with opioid use disorder as it is for someone with diabetes.

“For the federal prison system to pick and choose who gets to continue medical treatment and who doesn’t is unsafe and discriminatory.”

According to the release, Godsey, a mother or four, has an opioid use disorder and has been in recovery for more than a year with the assistance of medication prescribed by a doctor and is on the path to recovery.

Godsey, who was sentenced to two years and one day in a Bureau of Prisons facility where policies prohibit inmates from continuing on a medical-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder unless they are pregnant, the release stated.

Inmates denied medical-assisted treatment medication face increased risk for relapse, overdose or death, the press release said, adding that there also are higher chances of pain and suffering from withdrawal.

As previously reported by The Bellingham Herald, following the ACLU lawsuit against it, Whatcom County Jail will maintain people on medical-assisted treatment prescriptions they were already using in the community as well as start qualifying people on medication in the jail before they’re released.

“When people who are getting medication-assisted treatment for their opioid use disorder are able to stay on the medicine, the entire community is better off,” Mark Cooke of the ACLU said in a prepared statement. “We’re glad that Whatcom County has taken steps to help people in their efforts to overcome opioid addiction. The policy changes at the jail will save lives.”

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo previously told The Herald that the sheriff’s office already was developing a plan for medical-assisted treatment in the jail prior to the lawsuit.

“Whatcom County has been suffering from the opioid epidemic, just like the rest of Washington and our nation. (Medical-assisted treatment) helps people manage their addiction and saves lives,” Elfo said in a statement. “We are proud to be among the first jails in the nation to adopt policies to allow inmates to continue their (medical-assisted) treatment, as well as to begin )medical-assisted) treatment.”

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.