ACLU sues Grand Traverse Co. officials over inmate access to opioid use disorder medication

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Grand Traverse County jail officials over their alleged policies on inmates receiving medication for opioid use disorder.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan is on behalf of Cyrus Patson, a 20-year-old Traverse City resident who faces possible sentencing to jail next month, ACLU officials said in a statement.

He has battled severe opioid use disorder since early last year and was prescribed Suboxone, a medication that aims to treat withdrawal symptoms, according to court documents.

The lawsuit alleges Patson, who also has been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, was denied the medication while he was held in the Grand Traverse County Correctional Facility starting in June after a bond violation.

"By the time Mr. Patson was released, he had suffered a significant relapse in all of his co-occurring disorders," his lawyers wrote in the filing. "...As a result of these lasting consequences of his forced withdrawal, he has not been able to resume employment since his release."

Grand Traverse officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The lawsuit claims that denying medication to inmates with opioid use disorder violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  

“Abruptly stopping medically necessary treatment is cruel, discriminatory, and potentially deadly,” said Syeda Davidson, ACLU of Michigan senior staff attorney. “Incarceration does not take away a person’s right to continue doctor-prescribed, life-saving treatment. This applies to people who have opioid use disorder just as it does for people who have any other disability or medical condition. Jail officials have a legal duty to care for and uphold the rights of every single person in their custody. Mr. Patson is no different and should have appropriate access to his medically necessary treatment.”  

Citing state statistics, the lawsuit notes that Michigan reported 2,684 overdose deaths in 2020, up from 118 in 1999.

The ACLU said medication for opioid use disorder, also known as MOUD, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is provided in jails and prisons across the country, including elsewhere in Michigan.

Patson faces "serious medical consequences and grave risks to his health" if denied his medication behind bars, the group said Thursday. 

“Providing access to medication for the treatment of opioid use disorder to those who are incarcerated is not only feasible, it’s a human right,” said Alexandra Valenti, partner at Goodwin Procter, a law firm also listed on the lawsuit. “We implore the officials of Grand Traverse County to uphold their legal responsibilities and provide Mr. Patson with his physician-prescribed, life-saving medication while he is incarcerated.”