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Inmate sues to ensure methadone in prison

The Pete V. Domenici United States courthouse. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal file)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A woman who has been using methadone to successfully curb a heroin addiction is suing the New Mexico Corrections Department to try to ensure that she can continue to receive the medication when she gets transferred to prison next month to serve her sentence.

The woman, identified in the lawsuit only as SB, said she had been addicted to opioids for the past 20 years, has had multiple friends and family members die from overdoses and has overdosed more than a dozen times. For the past two years, she has been taking methadone – a medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to suppress cravings and treat symptoms of opioid withdrawal.

“She works on her recovery every day,” the lawsuit says, adding that the treatment has helped her cope with losing her father to COVID-19 and trauma from being raped. “Methadone and counseling are her life-line. She wants to continue her doctor-prescribed treatment for OUD (opioid use disorder), to stay in recovery, and to stay off of illicit opioids. She wants to break the cycle of incarceration. If she needs to, she will continue this treatment for the rest of her life.”

The lawsuit was filed in federal court on April 29 against Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero and Wensceslaus Asonganyi, the department’s health services administrator. Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Law Office of Ryan J. Villa allege that the Corrections Department will not provide medication-assisted treatment to inmates, except for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

The suit asks for the Corrections Department to provide SB with medication-assisted treatment throughout her time in prison and for the court to declare that the department’s denial of the medications “amounts to deliberate indifference to a serious medical need (and) is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” The attorneys filed an emergency motion Monday asking for a preliminary injunction requiring that the Corrections Department to provide the medication and that evidentiary hearings on the matter to be set.

A Corrections Department spokesman did not respond to questions about why prisons don’t provide medication-assisted treatment.

“While the Department does not comment on active litigation, we are aware of the complaint,” Eric Harrison wrote in an email. “This individual is not in NMCD custody.”

The lawsuit compares opioid use disorder to other chronic conditions – such as diabetes and high blood pressure – that can be controlled with medication.

In a news release, attorney Kate Lowe said the Corrections Department’s policy of denying the medication is “cruel, discriminatory, and dangerous.”

“Opioid overdose deaths in New Mexico continue to rise and untreated OUD contributes to NMCD’s recidivism rate. NMCD has a constitutional, legal, and moral duty to provide adequate medical care to our client,” Lowe said.

The lawsuit alleges that because the Corrections Department doesn’t provide methadone to most inmates, SB’s defense attorneys asked that she be sent to the Metropolitan Detention Center first so she can slowly withdraw from methadone. She is now in MDC, awaiting transfer to prison on June 9, and she is already suffering from tapering down her dosage.

“Every day my dose drops, I am more and more scared that if NMCD does not continue me on methadone during my time there, I will not be able to control my addiction,” SB said in a news release. “I’m afraid the cravings will be too big, and I will relapse, and could overdose, and die.”

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