- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A Washington state woman who is addicted to opioids sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons this month over its policy denying her medical care, saying the failure to give her the medicine she needs to battle her addiction violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Melissa Godsey will turn herself in at the end of the month to serve out a two-year sentence for bank fraud, identity theft and possession of stolen mail, but lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union say the prison must continue to give her Suboxone, a drug that prevents opioid withdrawal.

It’s the latest in a series of legal battles, with some resulting in prison officials agreeing to provide inmates in Massachusetts and Kansas with the long-term treatment.

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

The lawyers argue that failing to provide the medication discriminates against prisoners and violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Godsey has depression, ADHD and bipolar disorder in addition to opioid use disorder. She has been able to stay in active recovery for about 15 months by taking Suboxone, according to court documents.

Individuals who are taking drugs such as Suboxone can depend on them for years.

“If Ms. Godsey is denied her prescribed Suboxone while she is incarcerated, she will inevitably suffer and possibly die,” the lawsuit said.

Her lawyers say she could go into withdrawal or relapse once she is released.

One reason prisons have resisted giving inmates the long-term treatment for opioid use disorder has been the cost, say legal scholars following the issue.

Sharon Dolovich, the director of prison law and policy at the UCLA School of Law, said it is a subject being widely litigated across the country, but she said it’s unlikely to make it before the Supreme Court in the near future.

“Under current Eighth Amendment doctrine, corrections officials can’t opt for a course of treatment if it’s known to be less effective, just because it’s cheaper,” she said.

A representative for the Federal Bureau of Prisons refused to comment on the litigation, but said the agency recently began providing medication assistance treatment for some patients with opioid use disorder.

“The Bureau of Prisons has a robust drug treatment strategy that includes cognitive behavioral therapy programs of varying intensity,” the spokesperson said.

Godsey’s lawsuit comes after an Massachusetts inmate settled with the Bureau of Prisons in a similar case, with officials agreeing to provide methadone, a drug similar to Suboxone.

And this month Kansas prison officials agreed to give one inmate buprenorphine, another drug to help opioid addicts.

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