By her own telling, Christine Finnigan was a wreck.
She had stumbled after a decade of recovery from a Vicodin addiction, drinking and resuming her opioid use. Depressed and scarcely able to function, she lost her job and had to turn over guardianship of her granddaughter. In 2016, police caught her driving under the influence of alcohol, an offense that was only recently resolved with a guilty plea and a sentence of 30 days in the DuPage County Jail in suburban Chicago.
But Finnigan, 53, who lives in Chicago, said things changed for her in 2019. That’s when doctors put her on methadone, a medication that is itself an opioid but curbs the craving for heroin, Vicodin and OxyContin and greatly lowers the likelihood of an overdose. Along with buprenorphine, a similar medication, it is considered the gold standard for opioid addiction treatment by numerous health experts.
“It was like black and white,” Finnigan said. “I was back to the person I was before (relapsing).”
There’s just one problem. At the end of the month she must start serving her 30 days, and like most correctional institutions, the DuPage County Jail has had a policy of not providing those medications to inmates.
Finnigan said if she’s forced to endure a painful withdrawal from her methadone, she’ll be in danger of relapsing and overdosing once she’s released — a regular occurrence for inmates who go cold turkey behind bars.
That fear has led her to launch a bold preemptive strike: With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal aid organizations, she is suing DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick in federal court for the assurance she can continue to get her meds behind bars.
“It’s no different than somebody that’s a diabetic getting their insulin,” she said. “It’s a disease, and I should be entitled to (medication) whether I committed a crime or not.”
The sheriff’s office told the Tribune in 2018 that the jail did not provide medication-assisted addiction treatment for inmates other than pregnant women — cutting them off can harm the fetus — and a spokeswoman this week did not respond when asked if that policy has changed.
She did say that people who come to the jail addicted to opioids “are individually evaluated by our medical staff,” and county lawyers said in a court filing it would be premature to promise Finnigan a course of treatment before that happens.
But Finnigan and her attorneys say there’s every reason to believe she will be denied. They made a formal request last month but were rebuffed, they said, and the court documents include an alleged Facebook message exchange between Finnigan and Mendrick in which the sheriff said the jail offers “full detox” and psychological services, but was silent when asked about medication.
Nusrat Choudhury, an ACLU attorney who is on Finnigan’s legal team, said forcing Finnigan to go off her medication would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
Even if the jail were to ultimately agree to allow Finnigan to receive methadone, Choudhury said, failing to make arrangements ahead of time could lead to dangerous delays: Finnigan, like most methadone patients, gets a dose every day.
“The record suggests there’s no way they could ensure that this happens if they’re waiting until after she’s booked to provide the evaluation and take the other steps needed to actually carry out this prescription,” Choudhury said.
A growing number of jails and prisons already provide opioid medications to inmates. Cook County Jail has done it for about three years, and Joseph Longley, another ACLU attorney involved in the case, said the organization has won medication-assisted treatment rights for inmates in Maine and Massachusetts, among other jurisdictions.
“We have not lost any cases so far,” he said.
But jails and prisons remain hesitant to offer the medications to inmates, Longley said, incorrectly believing they pose a security threat or are akin to “swapping one addiction for another.”
Cost is another concern, but he said that should not be a consideration.
“You’d never say to somebody who’s in jail with cancer that they can’t have chemotherapy because it’s too expensive,” he said.
Jails such as Rikers Island in New York have told the Tribune they haven’t had problems with the drugs being diverted for unlawful use. And because the medications prevent people from losing their tolerance to opioids — something that happens during detox — they’ve also seen few overdose deaths after inmates are released.
Finnigan’s lawsuit says at least two inmates who detoxed at the DuPage County Jail died of overdoses soon after getting out, and that if she is denied her methadone, that could happen to her, too. She said a clear policy change to allow the medications would be good for everyone.
“Nobody’s going to gain anything out of (denying the medications),” said Finnigan, who has lost three brothers to heroin overdoses. “It’s going to be the reverse. It shouldn’t even be a topic. We shouldn’t even have to have this conversation.”
A court hearing on the matter is scheduled for Feb. 19.
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