A Madawaska woman who sued the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton in federal court and won the right to addiction treatment medication while incarcerated said Friday that she hopes the ruling opens the door for other inmates struggling with addiction to receive the same treatment.
U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen ruled on March 27 that Brenda Smith of Madawaska must have access to the medication once she begins serving a 40-day sentence for theft at the jail in Houlton.
“This ruling is a breakthrough in the fight against the opioid crisis,” said Emma Bond, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maine, who presented arguments on behalf of Smith. “The court rightly found that jails must provide necessary medical care for opioid use disorder, just like any other disease. We don’t expect jails to solve the opioid crisis, but the least they can do is not make it worse.”
Torresen found that denial of medication-assisted treatment would cause serious and irreparable harm to Smith, and would violate the Americans With Disabilities Act. The act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, including against people in recovery for opioid use disorder.
Attorneys for the jail pushed back at the idea that a ban on medication-assisted treatment is a violation of a prisoner’s rights and argued that medical staff at the jail have the ability to manage prisoners’ withdrawal symptoms.
Smith said Friday that she was “really afraid” when she was sentenced to serve 40 days in the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton on a theft conviction.
“I was scared and nervous,” she said. “I have already had to undergo withdrawal from Suboxone once when I was in the York County Jail for a week, and that was awful. That was like having the most awful flu you have ever experienced in your life.”
Smith said that during that time, all that she was given for her resulting muscle aches, cold sweats, fever and diarrhea was ibuprofen and something to settle her stomach.
“I just didn’t understand what all the fuss was about,” she said of not being given Suboxone. “It is medication I need. If I had cancer, the jail would treat me.”
She said that she didn’t know what to do about the situation until she read in July about the ACLU suing the Maine Department of Corrections commissioner and Aroostook County sheriff in a separate but similar case on behalf of Zachary Smith of Caribou, who wanted to continue taking Suboxone while incarcerated for assault. Brenda and Zachary Smith are not related.
“I decided to contact the ACLU and they pointed me toward my lawyers,” she said, speaking of Andrew Schmidt and Peter Mancuso from Andrew Schmidt Law PLLC.
Smith was scheduled to report to jail on April 1, but the sentence was delayed again.
Peter Marchesi, an attorney for the Aroostook County Jail, could not immediately be reached for comment Friday, but he said after the ruling that the jail plans to pursue “all available legal opportunities” to seek redress.
Smith said Friday that she believes she now is required to report to jail on May 1.
She said she will be happy to get the sentence over so she can “get on with her life.”
This story was originally published in The County.