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ACLU sues Essex County House of Correction, sheriff

BOSTON Kevin Coppinger, the Essex County sheriff who promised to expand treatment to fight opioid addiction instead of incarceration, is facing a federal lawsuit.

Geoffrey Pesce and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU) has sued the sheriff and Aaron Eastman, superintendent of the Essex County House of Correction.

The 17-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, challenges the Middleton jail’s practice of denying medication-assisted treatment to inmates diagnosed with opioid use disorders, even if it was doctor prescribed.

Pesce, an Ipswich resident, has been in recovery from opioid addiction for nearly two years and receives treatment from a daily dose of methadone, a prescription drug that suppresses drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms.  

The machinist is expected to plead guilty and be sentenced on Monday for speeding and driving with a revoked licence. The plea carries a minimum sentence of 60 days in jail that would be served in Middleton, the jail Coppinger manages, according to the suit.

Pesce struggled with addiction for nearly six years, experiencing unemployment, homelessness, and estrangement from his family and son. After his doctor prescribed methadone, he made a dramatic recovery, according to the lawsuit.

When his family was unavailable to drive him to the methadone treatment facility last summer, Pesce drove himself, though his license was suspended. He now faces imprisonment in Middleton, where his medication will not be made available to him.

ACLU attorneys argue people with opioid use disorders who are denied their medication suffer painful withdrawal, and also face an increased risk of relapse, overdose, and death. Despite medical consensus that such treatment is the standard care for opioid use disorder, the Middleton House of Correction refuses to provide prisoners with opioid addiction, including those who arrive with a prescription and are already in recovery as a result of it, the lawsuit said.

The ACLU is asking the federal court to require Essex County correctional authorities to provide Pesce’s prescribed medication for continued treatment of his opioid use disorder while in jail or by taking him to a nearby methadone treatment facility to receive his daily dosage.

Coppinger did not return a call seeking comment.

In a statement he said, “The Essex County Sheriff’s Department is aware that a complaint has been filed on behalf of Geoffrey Pesce in U.S. District Court. Our legal staff is reviewing this lawsuit. It is our policy not to comment on pending litigation.”

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said denying medication-assisted treatment to inmates with opioid use disorders is unsafe and unlawful.

The ACLU lawsuit argues that by denying adequate medical care to incarcerated people, this policy violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

“To someone with a life-threatening medical condition, treatment isn’t optional, it’s critical,” Rose said in a statement. “Public officials should support people in their efforts to overcome opioid addiction, not obstruct them.”


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