The Aroostook County Jail in Houlton. Credit: Joseph Cyr | Houlton Pioneer Times

A Madawaska woman who sued the Aroostook County Jail in federal court has won the right to addiction treatment medication while incarcerated.

U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen ruled late Wednesday night that Brenda Smith must have access to the medication once she begins serving a 40-day sentence for theft at the jail in Houlton on Monday.

“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.”

[Subscribe to our free morning newsletter and get the latest headlines in your inbox]

Over the course of a week-long trial, Torresen heard testimony from Smith as well as medical and corrections experts. In her ruling, 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.

Lawyers for Smith argued that continuing the medication while in jail is essential to treating Smith’s medical condition, as well as preventing painful withdrawal symptoms and an increased chance of relapse, overdose and death.

Currently, the Aroostook County Jail prohibits medication assisted treatment for all inmates except for pregnant women.

According to the lawsuit, Smith has been in active recovery for her opioid use disorder for about 10 years with the help of her medication. She has regained custody of her four children, secured stable housing for her family and obtained employment.

In late 2017, however, Smith was convicted of theft and sentenced to jail. Her attorney contacted the jail about what procedures needed to be followed to enable her to continue her medication-assisted treatment, but was told Smith would undergo withdrawal and “her symptoms would be treated in accordance with the jail’s withdrawal protocol,” according to court documents.

Smith filed a lawsuit and negotiated an extension of her surrender date.

Torresen noted in her decision that prior efforts to take Smith off of her medication had not been successful, and that it was therefore “necessary to her continued health.”

She noted that the jail “denied Ms. Smith’s requests for buprenorphine without regard to her medical needs and without any true justification.”

She also noted that jail officials had suggested they generally try to keep inmates from continuing medication-assisted treatment to prevent diversion of buprenorphine.

But she pointed out that, on one past occasion, they have provided medication-assisted treatment to a pregnant woman inside the jail, and did so without any known problems.

[DOC agrees to let Caribou man take Suboxone in prison]

“The defendants have offered no reason that the same could not be done for Ms. Smith,” Torresen wrote.

“Combating the stigma against medication-assisted treatment for opioid disorders is crucial to overcoming the opioid crisis in Maine and across the country,” said James Monteleone, an attorney with Bernstein Shur. “That means recognizing that medication-assisted treatment is essential medical care for many patients.”

Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen was not immediately available for comment Thursday.

Lawyers from Andrew Schmidt Law PLLC originally filed suit on behalf of Smith in September 2018. Along with Andrew Schmidt and Peter Mancuso from Andrew Schmidt Law PLLC, Smith is represented by Bond and Zachary Heiden from the ACLU of Maine and Monteleone and David Soley from Bernstein Shur.

This story was originally published in The County.