Federal prison policy violates Eighth Amendment and Rehabilitation Act, ACLU-WA lawsuit asserts

September 19, 2019

The ACLU of Washington has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for denying people with opioid use disorder (OUD) medications necessary to treat their addiction. The lawsuit, brought on behalf of Melissa Godsey, challenges BOP’s policy of refusing to provide people access to “Medication-Assisted Treatment” (MAT), including Suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone), even though it provides other clinically appropriate medications to inmates.  

This policy is harmful, unfair, and illegal. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act forbid discrimination against people with OUD, who are just as entitled to medication as those suffering from any other ailment requiring medical treatment. 

“People taking doctor-prescribed medications have a right to continue those medications while incarcerated,” said ACLU-WA Staff Attorney Lisa Nowlin. “This is as true for someone with opioid use disorder as it is for someone with diabetes. For the federal prison system to pick and choose who gets to continue medical treatment and who doesn’t is unsafe and discriminatory.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Melissa Godsey, who has opioid use disorder and has been in recovery for over a year with the help of doctor-prescribed medication. Ms. Godsey is a mother of four and has struggled with addiction since her early twenties. But she’s overcome this adversity, obtaining a college degree, and is now on a path to recovery. 

Godsey has been sentenced to 2 years and one day in a federal Bureau of Prisons facility. Current BOP policies prohibit someone from continuing on MAT for treatment of OUD, unless the inmate is pregnant.

People with opioid use disorder who are denied their medication face an increased risk of relapse, overdose, and death—in addition to suffering from painful and unnecessary withdrawal. Despite medical consensus that MAT is the standard of care for opioid use disorder, the Bureau of Prisons categorically and arbitrarily denies MAT to non-pregnant inmates with opioid use disorder during their incarceration, including those who, like Godsey, have been prescribed the medication by their doctor and are already in sustained recovery as a result of it.

The lawsuit, Godsey v. Sawyer, builds on state and local efforts by the ACLU-WA to increase access to MAT. In April 2019, the Whatcom County Jail agreed to provide MAT to medically appropriate inmates with opioid use disorder as part of the settlement agreement in the ACLU-WA lawsuit, Kortlever et al v. Whatcom County

It also follows the June 2019 settlement of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Massachusetts, DiPierro v. Hurwitz, and the September 2019 settlement of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Kansas and ACLU of Missouri, Crews v. Sawyer, in which BOP agreed to provide MAT to Stephanie DiPierro and Leaman Crews for treatment of OUD. 

In addition to Nowlin, Mark Cooke and John Midgley of the ACLU-WA are representing Godsey, together with Bart Freedman and Christina Elles of K&L Gates LLP.

Stay Informed