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Sheriff in ACLU lawsuit against Essex County House of Correction responds

In his first public comments in the wake of a lawsuit that challenges the Essex County House of Correction’s practice of denying medication-assisted treatment to opioid-addicted inmates, Sheriff Kevin Coppinger said he is committed to the care of prisoners.

“As sheriff, my goal is to help our inmates return to their communities better prepared to function as productive members of society,” Coppinger told The Item. “To that end, we offer a wide variety of programs to meet inmate educational, vocational, as well as treatment needs.”

On Wednesday, the sheriff learned from a reporter that the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU) and Geoffrey Pesce filed suit in U.S. District Court against him and Aaron Eastman, superintendent of the Essex County House of Correction.

The complaint seeks an end to 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.  

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

Coppinger said two-thirds of the more than 1,500 inmates in his jail suffer from substance abuse disorder. Essex County offers what he called a nationally recognized detox program that helps inmates become and stay drug-free.

“We work with the inmates to plan individual comprehensive treatment programs for when they are released so that they can maintain their sobriety,” he said. “We also recently instituted a re-entry transition unit at our pre-release center along with recovery coaches in our communities to help inmates achieve success.”

The jail offers a medically-assisted treatment program using Vivitrol. The shot is administered once a month, and it blocks the brain receptors that react to opioids. When administered, it removes cravings for opioids, he said, and if they do take opioids they will not get high.

Still, Coppinger acknowledged no Massachusetts jail offers methadone.

The sheriff said thanks to his efforts along with the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association, the Legislature crafted a statewide pilot program to provide medication-assisted treatment. Starting next September, five county correctional facilities in the commonwealth: Middlesex, Franklin, Norfolk, Hampden and Hampshire will offer a program that would include methadone. Essex County is not included in the pilot.

“Even though I’m not one of the five counties, there are provisions in the program that allow me to use the services of these five jails should someone like Mr. Pesce come here. I could move him to one of the other facilities.”


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