Last week, the New York State Senate passed a bill making medication available that would help inmates deal with opioid abuse.

With the passing of S1795/A533 (sponsored by New York State Sen. Jamaal Bailey and New York State Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal), the state senate ensures that life-saving Medication for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD) will be available for incarcerated people that need it.

Using methadone, the goal of the treatment is to reduce the pains of withdrawal and stop any cravings for opioids. Advocates refer to opioid use disorder as a chronic health condition that should be treated as such. They believe that without these medications available, people with the disorder suffer painful withdrawal, and an increased risk of relapse, overdose and death, which is exacerbated for those recovering from opioid abuse in jail.

According to a recent report by the Legal Action Center, 80% of correctional detainees have some form of substance abuse issues and when considering the race and ethnicities of those incarcerated, it makes for a lethal combo. Numbers from the Vera Institute of Justice showed that in 2018, Black New Yorkers made up 336 per 100,000 of incarcerated individuals between the ages of 18 to 64: the highest among all races/ethnicities.

It’s still down from the peak of 829 per 100,000 prisoners recorded in 1996.

Sen. Bailey said that “the expansion of this will save a lot of lives. The pushback previously was about the cost…but since we were able to secure funding [from Cuomo] in the state budget, it made more sense [to them].”

In April, the New York City Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union sued Jefferson County, N.Y. attempting to force the Jefferson County Correctional Facility to use methadone to help incarcerated people fight their addiction. Both organizations believe that denying treatment is discriminatory against opioid abusers and violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which includes the language, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

The ACLU has filed similar lawsuits in multiple states including Maine, Massachusetts and Washington.

“There is a well-documented opioid crisis nationwide, and New York State is no exception,” stated Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “The State Department of Health has reported a sharp increase in opioid overdose deaths in recent years and the risk of overdose from opioid use is especially dangerous for people who are or have been incarcerated.

“MOUD is the standard of care for opioid use disorder, and it is essential to preventing opioid

overdose,” continued Luongo. “Making medication available to incarcerated people will save lives.”

Hiawatha Collins, board member and leader with VOCAL-NY’s Users Union, said that the bill is another step in the incarcerated being treated like human beings.

“With this bill, the legislature is putting an end to the practice of forcing people into inhumane withdrawal,” said Collins. “This legislation ensures that they will have access to medication assisted treatment for their substance use disorders during their incarceration, their autonomy honored by offering all three forms of medication, and that there is a warm hand-off with their care after their incarceration.”

“What’s the goal of incarceration?” added Bailey. “What I think is incarceration, at best, should be rehabilitation. Some people think incarceration should just be punishment, punishment, punishment. Not permitting them an opportunity to grow from that is a big mistake.

“The human cost outweighs the financial cost we have to bear at times,” concluded Bailey.