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Federal Prisons Punish Some Inmates For Using Addiction Meds

Timothy York arrived in federal prison in 2008 and has been held in a series of facilities awash with contraband drugs and violence, reports The Marshall Project. He's spent tens of thousands of dollars buying Suboxone, which helps quiet cravings, from prison dealers because it helps him think clearly. He hasn't been able to get it consistently. In 2019, he learned that the federal Bureau of Prisons was starting a program to expand access to Suboxone, and the pharmacist at the federal prison in Sumterville, Fla., said he was a priority for treatment. Yet, he is still waiting. In the meantime, he’s been punished for using Suboxone without a prescription. Last year, after York was caught with the medication, he spent a month in solitary confinement and had his visitor privileges revoked for a year. He also lost access to phone calls and email for four months, and the chance to be released more than a month early. Federal law treats the use of any narcotics without a prescription in federal prison as a “greatest severity level prohibited act,” allowing officials to punish prisoners by delaying their release date, confiscating their property, taking away their visiting or phone privileges and holding them for up to six months in solitary.


The Marshall Project spoke to more than 20 federal inmates struggling with addictions. They described the dire consequences of being unable to access a treatment that Congress has instructed prisons to provide. Some people have overdosed, and others have been involved in dangerous money-making schemes to pay for Suboxone, which costs about $20 for a daily dose on the illegal market. Last year, the prison agency disciplined more than 500 people for using Suboxone without a prescription. The 2018 First Step Act required the bureau to offer more prisoners addiction medications. Yet, under 10 percent of the 15,000 prisoners who need it are being treated. By the end of October, 21 prisons were not offering any prisoners addiction medication, and another 59 were treating 10 or fewer people. Most of the time, it was only one person. The Bureau of Prisons is treating more people since it launched its opioid medication program. In 2019, 41 people were receiving addiction medications. As of October, that had risen to 1,035 people; more than 80 percentare receiving Suboxone. The bureau’s delay in providing more widespread addiction medication has consequences not only for prisoners but for its employees as well: It “creates an avenue for contraband to flow into the institution through other avenues,” said Aaron McGlothin, union president at the federal prison in Mendota, Ca.

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