Giving Compass' Take:

• Beth Schwartzapfel shares how Geoffrey Pesce challenged a common jail policy not to provide prescribed addiction medication under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

• how can jails and prisons better serve and treat inmates? What can funders do to decrease the prison population and improve treatment? 

• Learn about the next steps in prison reform

Before Geoffrey Pesce got on methadone, his addiction to heroin and oxycodone nearly destroyed him: He lost his home, his job, custody of his son—and his driver’s license. So even after he began to rebuild his life, Pesce relied on his parents to drive him to a methadone clinic for his daily dose. One day last July, his mother was unexpectedly unavailable, and desperate not to relapse, he drove himself.

En route, Pesce was pulled over for going six miles above the speed limit and charged with driving with a suspended or revoked license, which carries at least 60 days in jail. Pesce began staring down the day he would plead guilty and, as mandated by the rules of the jail in Essex County, Massachusetts, stop taking the addiction drug that he said saved his life.

Most jails and prisons around the country forbid methadone and a newer addiction medication, buprenorphine, even when legitimately prescribed, on the grounds that they pose safety and security concerns. The drugs are frequently smuggled into facilities and sold or traded among prisoners.

Pesce worried that while he went through withdrawal from methadone in jail, someone would offer him drugs, and he wouldn’t be able to refuse. He turned to the courts for a solution: Pesce sued the Essex County sheriff on the grounds that his addiction was a disability and that denying him treatment was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as cruel and unusual punishment. In November, a federal judge in Massachusetts sided with Pesce in what attorneys describe as the first ruling of its kind.

The landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, bans discrimination against people with disabilities and requires that public places or services be made accessible to all. From its inception, the law included protections for those recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction.

Yet until recently, the law was rarely invoked on behalf of prisoners taking methadone and buprenorphine.

Read the full article about changing the way jails and prisons treat addiction by Beth Schwartzapfel at The Marshall Project.