ALBUQUERQUE, NM— People with opioid use disorders in New Mexico prisons experience painful and life-threatening consequences when the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) denies them access to medically necessary, physician-prescribed medications while incarcerated. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico (ACLU-NM) on behalf of Disability Rights New Mexico (DRNM) today filed a lawsuit against Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero, NMCD Health Services Administrator Wenscelaus Asonganyi, and NMCD to ensure that incarcerated people with opioid use disorder (OUD) are continued on their medication for opioid use disorder when they enter NMCD custody.
“Being forced to withdraw from methadone made my depression and anxiety really bad,” said Shuana Brown, a former ACLU-NM client who suffers from OUD and was forced to withdraw from medically prescribed methadone while in NMCD custody. “I have a lot of family members who were my age who killed themselves either on purpose or accidentally overdosed. This scared me. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to die in prison.”
Opioid use disorder is a chronic medical condition, that like other chronic diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes, can be successfully treated with medication. Medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) is the medical standard of care for OUD, accepted by experts as the proper treatment. Without access to their doctor-prescribed medication in prison, people with opioid use disorder suffer painful withdrawal and face high risk of relapse, overdose, and death—both while they are in prison and upon their return home.
“Opioid use disorder is a disability, and most New Mexicans have family or loved ones who have this disability and struggle with substance abuse or opioid addiction,” said Max Kauffman, an attorney with Disability Rights New Mexico. “When people take steps to address their substance abuse disorder, our prisons and jails should be supporting them, not denying them treatment.”
Despite overwhelming support for MOUD by the medical community, NMCD forces people on MOUD to withdraw from it when they enter prison, with the exception of pregnant people. The lawsuit filed today challenges NMCD’s policy of prohibiting MOUD as a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and as unlawful discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As of 2019, one-half of the reincarceration rate was attributed to parole revocations for technical violations related to drug use. Ensuring that people with OUD are allowed to continue their medication during their incarceration will help people break cycles of addiction and incarceration, giving them a better chance for success when they return to their communities.
“No one should be denied essential, lifesaving healthcare, including medications prescribed by your doctor. This includes incarcerated people,” said Lalita Moskowitz, litigation manager at ACLU-NM. “NMCD’s failure to provide medication for opioid use disorder is a missed opportunity to support the people and communities who are most in need of it. Our families and our communities deserve better.”
A copy of the lawsuit can be found below.