Massachusetts’ contentious tactic to fight its opioid crisis: jailing addicts

The Guardian
April 23, 2019
By Josh Wood

The scene plays out every day in Massachusetts, thousands of times a year.

A loved one is addicted to opioids. Their life is spinning out of control as they use more and more. Their family panics. Rehab can be unaffordable – and it may require waiting for a spot. But they need to get their loved one somewhere they can’t use before it’s too late.

It’s about now that they might consider section 35, a process in Massachusetts by which persons abusing drugs or alcohol can be involuntarily committed to treatment for up to 90 days after a family member, guardian, law enforcement officer or doctor petitions a judge. Many states have similar laws in place and have turned to them in battling the opioid crisis gripping the nation.

But in Massachusetts, involuntarily committed men can end up in jail or prison even though no charges have been levied against them.

According to Prisoners’ Legal Services, a not-for-profit that has been a key opponent of the practice, Massachusetts places more than 2,000 men involuntarily committed for substance abuse in correctional facilities per year.

In March, PLS filed a lawsuit against the department of correction and department of public health on behalf of 10 unnamed patients being held at the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (Masac), a facility operated by the DoC in the town of Plymouth.

The lawsuit charges that holding the men in correctional facilities is unconstitutional, constitutes unlawful discrimination on the basis of gender and disability and is overall detrimental to recovery. They also describe an abusive environment where patients are “routinely” humiliated by correctional officers (COs) and where patients lack access to opioid substitution medications such as Suboxone.

“These people are being shamed and stigmatised on the basis of a disease that’s acknowledged as a disability,” said Bonnie Tenneriello, PLS staff attorney.

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