ALBUQUERQUE, NM – As a result of a settlement approved by a federal district court Monday, incarcerated people with opioid use disorder (OUD) in the custody of the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) will now be able to continue taking buprenorphine, a medication for opioid use disorder, when they enter NMCD custody. The settlement resolves a lawsuit against NMCD, Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero, and NMCD Health Services Administrator Wenscelaus Asonganyi brought by Disability Rights New Mexico (DRNM) and represented by Katherine Loewe of the Law Office of Ryan Villa, DRNM and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico.  

“We are relieved that people entering NMCD custody will now get the lifesaving medication their doctors prescribed them. Opioid use disorder is a disability and medical condition that most often needs to be treated with medication. In fact, medication for opioid use disorder is the only proven method of treatment,” said Tim Gardner, legal director of DRNM. “Without access to their doctor-prescribed medication in prison, people with opioid use disorder suffer painful and dangerous withdrawal and face a high risk of relapse, overdose, and death, both in prison and upon their release. It is cruel and illogical to deny this treatment to people, especially when such effective medications exist. This settlement is a step in the right direction in our state’s effort to tackle the opioid crisis." 

In 2023, the New Mexico Legislature passed Senate Bill 425, which requires NMCD to provide medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) to those in their custody. However, under the statute, NMCD is not required to start continuing medication for people entering custody until the end of 2025. In the intervening two years, were it not for this settlement, many people would have been forced off life-saving medication and exposed to heightened risk of overdose and death.  

“Every addiction is different, as is every person who suffers from it,” said Shuana Brown, a DRNM client in another methadone case. “We must care about people on an individual basis. Since our stories are all different, our cures will also be different. I know the New Mexico Corrections Department needs a lot of work from the bottom up. Our lives matter, and I think it’s time NMCD adapts a totally different approach on how it handles inmates.” 

This settlement requires NMCD to follow the medical standard of care and provide buprenorphine (which includes brand names Subutex, Suboxone, and Sublocade) to people entering NMCD who are already being treated with it. 

“The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis and access to medication is a federal right. This settlement is a step towards ensuring that incarcerated people will continue receiving their life saving medication and remedying the violation of their rights," said Katherine Loewe. "This is particularly important here in New Mexico where local jails from Bernalillo to Roosevelt County are stepping up and providing MOUD, only to have those medications discontinued for someone sentenced to NMCD. Now, people should be able to receive wrap around care just as they would for other medical conditions. 

“Let’s be clear, a banket policy of denying people their prescription MOUD is disability discrimination under the ADA,” continued Loewe. “Every correctional institution should be providing continuity now. Nonetheless, NMCD has agreed to start providing buprenorphine 90 days after the New Mexico Health and Human Services Department promulgates rules. By statute, the state was required to promulgate these rules by December 1, 2023. The state has failed to do so. This failure to comply with the statute is delaying people’s access to buprenorphine and calling into question the state’s commitment to complying with SB 425’s requirements.”   

The settlement will:  

  • Require NMCD to start providing buprenorphine to people entering NMCD custody who are currently receiving medications for opioid use disorder from a licensed medical provider; 
  • Allow pregnant and lactating people currently receiving buprenorphine while incarcerated to stay on buprenorphine after birth and after they are no longer lactating as long as clinically indicated;  
  • Lift prohibitions that prevent people in NMCD custody who reside at halfway houses like Men's and Women’s Recovery and Crossroads Pavilions from being able to receive MOUD; 
  • Require NMCD to report quarterly about the number of individuals being screened and treated for OUD under the settlement agreement.  

The settlement does not require the state to start people on MOUD if they were not on it prior to entering NMCD custody. However, by the end of the fiscal year, July 1, 2026, NMCD must begin assessing all incarcerated individuals and providing MOUD to those who need it pursuant to SB 425. 

“People in prison still have a right to essential, lifesaving healthcare, including medications prescribed by their doctors,” said Lalita Moskowitz, litigation manager for the ACLU of New Mexico. “Providing this treatment for opioid use disorder gives people a chance to be free of the dangerous drugs that may have contributed to them becoming incarcerated in the first place. This is a critical step in addressing public health and safety concerns that affect all of us, including the communities incarcerated people return home to.”