The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, in an opinion released earlier this week, could open the door to the use of drug treatment for drug addicts who are in state prisons.
The use of drugs such as Methadone, Suboxone and Vivitrol to treat drug addicts has become more common for drug addicts who are not in prison.
However, an inmate like Mark C. Rokita Jr., 37, who was committed to Houtzdale State Correctional Institution for drug and firearms offenses, is barred by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. similarly seeking MAT’s help in dealing with his admitted opioid abuse. .
Rokita, who was diagnosed with “substance abuse disorder”, requested that he receive treatment behind bars through the use of Vivitrol.
This treatment would be under the supervision of medical professionals, if Rokita is successful.
While the Department of Corrections allows drug-
Assisted treatment in some cases, such as the use of methadone for pregnant prisoners to prevent the unborn child from experiencing withdrawal symptoms at birth, or for prisoners leaving prison, it does not allow such treatment for inmates serving long prison terms, such as Rokita.
The treatment offered to Rokita consists of group counseling sessions, according to the Commonwealth Court opinion written by Judge Patricia A. McCullough.
Rokita appealed DOC’s opposition to MAT by filing an appeal with the court.
He said he had developed an addiction to opioids prescribed to him due to an injury.
He became addicted and claims he turned to the illegal opioid pill trade when he could no longer receive the pills legally.
He said he used Suboxone obtained by the “prison black market” but more recently he asked a prison social worker to allow him to explore the use of Vivitrol.
In his appeal, he argues that no MAT program is offered to the general DOC population.
He argued that the DOC’s policy violated his Eighth Amendment rights by prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.
The policy, he said, also violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The Rokita petition seeks an order “require the (DOC) to allow him access to a physician who specializes in substance use disorders and is authorized to prescribe MAT”, in McCullough’s opinion.
Three Commonwealth Court judges joined McCullough in an order dismissing the DOC’s objections to Rokita’s claim.
Among them were the president of the court, judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer and judges Anne E. Covey and Christine Fizanno Cannon.
The appeals court ordered the department to file a response to Rokita’s request for medical assistance within 30 days.
Judge Michael H. Wojcik dissented.
Wojcik maintained that the department did not deny Rokita treatment and that no medical professional specified that MAT was necessary to treat Rokita’s drug addiction.
The dissenting judge pointed out that Rokita simply believes that his current treatment program is not his favorite.
He stated, “The Majority, in arguing for social reform by expanding the use of MATs in Pennsylvania prisons, did not cite any reviewing legal authority to support the proposition that (Rokita) argued a viable Eighth Amendment claim. “
He further argued that the General Assembly and the DOC are the bodies responsible for enacting laws and social policy.
“I cannot support the dangerous and unwarranted expansion of the majority of MAT use in these facilities (state prisons),” said Wojcik in his dissent.
McCullough, representing the majority of the court, took a different position, stating that the use of drugs to combat addiction is a “developing area of law… which cannot escape the attention of the Court”.
“The prevalence of opioid use and addiction has become a crisis in the United States, as it has been recognized as a public health emergency by both the Federal Government and this Commonwealth.
“As this crisis permeates all levels of society, it’s no surprise that its effects are felt within the walls of prison, where many people addicted to controlled substances end up ending up,” according to the opinion.
In discussing America’s drug crisis, the court’s majority opinion also noted the multiple lawsuits filed against pharmaceutical companies that assured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to painkillers.
The McCullough opinion argued in favor of allowing Rokita to go ahead with her attempt to obtain drug treatment.
“Without effective treatment during incarceration, relapses and overdoses on release are the leading cause of death among inmates after release.” McCullough said.
Rokita’s explained opinion is denied “a whole class of medical care…as are other inmates.”
“Because the provision of adequate medical care in prison is a constitutional necessity, it follows that the denial of an entire class of medical treatment may raise an issue under the Eighth Amendment,” He concluded.
The majority opinion addressed Wojcik’s concern that the judges were overstepping their bounds by allowing Rokita’s motion for MAT to go ahead.
“We simply conclude that, given recent developments in the law … it is possible that Rokita can establish that he was denied necessary medical treatment in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” the notice explained.