ACLU Sues Whatcom County Jail

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Excellent article by Denver Pratt of the Bellingham Herald says the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)  filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Wednesday against the Whatcom County Jail and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office for allegedly denying inmates with opioid use disorder access to medication.

The lawsuit filed in Seattle in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington alleges the jail’s policy of refusing to provide access to medication assisted treatment to treat opioid addiction violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Pratt reports that Opioid Use Disorder is classified as a disability under the ADA, and is also a recognized substance use disorder. A person qualifies as having opioid use disorder if they meet two or more criteria that reflect impaired health function over a 12-month period.

The lawsuit alleges that the jail has a policy for giving medication, such as buprenorphine (Suboxone or Subutex), or methadone, to pregnant women suffering from opioid use disorder, but has no policy for non-pregnant individuals, forcing them to go into withdrawal once they’re booked.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of two inmates who were receiving medication assisted treatment before they became incarcerated. However, the ACLU is seeking class-action status for all non-pregnant people incarcerated who have Opioid Use Disorder.

“Defendants’ policy and practice of denying medications to treat opioid use disorder to non-pregnant individuals is both dangerous and discriminatory,” according to the complaint filed in the case.” It singles out a particularly vulnerable group of disabled people, forces them to suffer unnecessarily from painful opioid withdrawal, and subjects them to an increased risk of relapse and overdose death.”

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said Thursday he believed several other jails in Washington state are under scrutiny by the ACLU for opioid treatment. He said the county had not been served with the lawsuit yet as of Thursday afternoon, but noted the ACLU has 20 days to do so.

Elfo said the 2019 opening of a new 32-bed crisis triage center for people suffering from mental health and substance use disorders will provide an alternative to taking people who use opioids to jail, and give them access to treatment.

“This is something that’s been asked for for 20 years. I’m glad it’s something that’s finally on the horizon,” he said.

The project will expand the current Crisis Triage Center and will be on Division Street in Bellingham. It will cost up to an estimated $9.5 million.

My opinion?

First, kudos to Ms. Pratt for her excellent and timely reporting.

Second, lawsuits like this reveal the pressing need for Whatcom County to construct a new jail. A larger facility with upgraded services would not only better serve the needs of the incarcerated defendants, but also the jail staff and police officers who work there on a daily basis.

I’ve heard the arguments against a new jail. Clearly – and unfortunately – the community has voted down numerous proposals. What most people don’t understand, however, is that the current jail is decrepit, unsafe and virtually inhumane. As a result, we see riots and suicides happen at the jail with unsettling frequency.

Good luck to the ACLU. Hopefully, they’ll be instrumental toward making positive changes happen for the inmates and hardworking jail staff here in Whatcom County.