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The Case For Opioid Addiction Treatment Behind Bars

Image Courtesy of OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff


The New York Civil Liberties Union came to a landmark settlement on Tuesday. They found that Jefferson County jail was not providing necessary medical care for incarcerated people with opioid addiction. And this treatment is supposed to be guaranteed under federal and New York state law. I spoke with one of the case attorneys at the NYCLU Terry Ding who explained more.


So under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Opioid Use Disorder is categorized as a disability. And so, jails and prisons are required to make accommodations for people with that disability, which includes the treatment that they need. We've been working on this issue, the availability of MOUD for incarcerated people for years now.

So MOUD stands for medication for Opioid Use Disorder and the kind of that we're specifically focused on here activate opioid receptors in the brain that relieve a person's craving for opioids and relieve their withdrawal symptoms. The stigma against people with OUD a big reason why a lot of facilities were not providing this kind of treatment. And in October of 2022, a little bit after we filed our case, New York state actually passed a new law. That requires treatment to be made available for people who need it in all jails and prisons across the state.

SAINT: So you say that because of this law that was passed in 2022, all prisons across New York should have this treatment available.

DING: This case, specifically, we filed in March of 2022 and leading up to that time, we had tried to work collaboratively with Jefferson County to, make this treatment available. The county essentially, didn't grant those requests for treatment.


SAINT: So why is this case so important? 

DING: It was just necessary because there were so many people passing through the jail who had opioid addiction and who needed this treatment. And because they weren't getting it, were, going through a profoundly painful withdrawal, dealing with relentless opioid cravings and just at risk of relapse and overdose without the treatment.

SAINT: And how are you going to be able to keep a track on making sure that incarcerated people who need this medical care are receiving this treatment?

DING: One big area of concern is that there were significant racial disparities in who was being allowed to start treatment or get treatment and who wasn't. So, the rates at which people who are incarcerated people are black, who need this treatment, is much lower than for white folks. 

So I think that's reflective of the the overall reality that compliance has been inconsistent in different jurisdictions.

But we're hopeful that in the wake of this lawsuit, and in the wake of this new state law, that availability to this life saving treatment will be much stronger across the state.

SAINT: So do these prisons have this treatment available or is it an issue of cost of getting this treatment in?

DING: I think the cost issue is something that these correctional facilities have talked about before as an obstacle.

In the long run, making this treatment available is not just life saving, it's cost saving because it reduces the rate of, the use of contraband opioids, in jails and prisons.

It helps people, stay on treatment at much higher rates, which, makes it easier for them to adjust back to life in the community. Once you're released, it makes them much, much less likely to relapse and overdose. And so we think it's really a sort of a no brainer that this kind of treatment should be made widely available for people who need them.


SAINT: Terry, Thank you so much for talking with me today. 

DING: Yeah. Thank you for having me on.

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