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Prison Pot and Opiate Overdose–A Radical Approach to Prisoner Healthcare

Prison Pot and Opiate Overdose–A Radical Approach to Prisoner Healthcare

Ronald Hammond

            The United States is suffering from an opioid epidemic of catastrophic proportions[1]and a huge federal and state prison population.[2] This Note proposes to bring some relief to this juncture of American suffering. The American prison system focuses heavily on the punitive nature of punishment.[3] Prisoners affected by opiate addiction make this stance more distinct; a large number are forced to experience the effects of opiate withdrawal without being able to seek the medical help that would be available to non-incarcerated citizens.[4] Prisoners are also likely to overdose when they are released from prison; a North Carolina study established that prisoners were 74 times more likely to overdose within 2 weeks or release when compared to the general population.[5] These problems can be fixed by providing Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) to the prison population.[6]

            Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) has to be supervised by a doctor, making it a medical procedure.[7] A medical procedure is considered healthcare.[8]Under an Eighth Amendment analysis, the Supreme Court held that prisoners have a right to healthcare.[9] The Court did not directly establish that prisoners have a right to healthcare; the Court declared the right is inherent in an analysis of the Eighth Amendment.[10] By holding in such a way, the Court crafted a right that could be applied to other aspects of prison life.

            Opiate addiction is a disease.[11] When a prison system allows for a disease to rampage in a prisoner’s body, they are violating their protection against cruel and unusual punishment.[12] Therefore, an addiction that is not addressed by the prison system is sanctioned by it, in violation of the 8th Amendment.[13]

            Part I of this note will provide background information on the American federal and state prison systems, the Opioid Epidemic, and Cannabis Prohibition. Part II will lay down the foundation to the prisoner’s right to healthcare. Part III will explore the prisoner’s right to opiate addiction treatment or MAT. Part IV will probe into the possibility of a prisoner’s right to medical cannabis.

[1]The US experienced 42,000 opiate overdose deaths in 2016. See What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic?, U.S. Dep’t of Hum. Health and Serv., (last visited Sept. 27, 2018).

[2]The US currently has a prisoner population of 1,506,800. See Dept. of Justice, Prisoners in 2016 (2018), (providing a breakdown of the prisoner populations in the United States both by Federal and State designations).

[3]See generally Bettina Muenster & Jennifer Trone, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Why Is America So Punitive? A Report on the Deliberations of The Interdisciplinary Roundtable on Punitiveness in America (2015), (explaining the plethora of ways in which the American Prison System focuses heavily on the punitive nature of justice).

[4]Jeremy Galloway, U.S. Jails Are Killing People Going Through Opioid Withdrawals, Huffington Post (Dec. 6, 2017), (revealing how people suffering opioid withdrawals are dying in the custody of the government).

[5]Shabbar I. Ranapurwala et al., Opioid Overdose Mortality Among Former North Carolina Inmates: 2000–2015, 108 Am. J. of Pub. Health 1207, 1210 (2018).

[6]Traci C. Green et al., Postincarceration Fatal Overdoses After Implementing Medications for Addiction Treatment in a Statewide Correctional System, JAMA Psychiatry E1, E1 (2018), (explaining that Rhode Island saw a 12.3% reduction in the number of overdose deaths in recently released prisoners from 2016 to 2017).

[7]Michael O’Neil, The ADA Practical Guide to Substance Use Disorders and Safe Prescribing 24 (2015).

[8]Healthcare,, (last visited Jan. 7, 2019) (defining the term as “1. the field concerned with the maintenance or restoration of the health of the body or mind; 2. any of the procedures or methods employed in this field”).

[9]Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976) (holding that prisoners have a right to healthcare).

[10] 106 (holding originally that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, the Court has come to understand that giving prisoners healthcare is the best way to avoid this violation).

[11]U.S. Nat’l Libr. of Medicine, Opioid addiction, (last visited Nov. 10, 2018).

[12]Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660, 666 (1962).


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