Landmark civil rights settlement ends after Whatcom County Jail successfully implements program to provide medications necessary to treat opioid use disorder

News Release: 
Monday, August 1, 2022
BELLINGHAM – A landmark civil rights settlement between the ACLU of Washington and Whatcom County concluded this May after the county successfully started and implemented a program to provide medications necessary to treat opioid use disorder to individuals in the Whatcom County Jail.  

The settlement resolved a first-of-its-kind class-action civil rights lawsuit that the ACLU-WA filed in 2018 against Whatcom County and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s office for denying people in their custody with Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) the medications necessary to treat their health condition. The lawsuit challenged the jail’s policy of refusing people access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT), while providing other clinically -appropriate medications to people in the jail. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forbids discrimination against people with OUD, who are just as entitled to medication as those suffering from any other ailment requiring medical treatment.  

In 2019, a settlement agreement was reached in which the Whatcom County Jail would provide MAT services as medically appropriate to people in the jail with OUD. It covered services for those who were already using MAT in the community as well as those suffering from OUD and qualified to start medication in jail before release.   

MAT has a strong track record of helping people manage their OUD and achieve better outcomes in recovery. Many people with OUD need to remain on MAT for years and in some cases, their entire lives to decrease the risk of relapse and overdose. The availability of MAT in jail also greatly reduces the chance of overdose upon release.  

“The entire community is better off when people have low barrier access to medication-assisted treatment. Untreated OUD makes it more likely the individual will have interactions with the criminal legal system in the future,” said Mark Cooke of the ACLU-WA’s Campaign for Smart Justice. “We’re glad Whatcom County is leading the way in Washington to help people in their efforts to overcome opioid use disorder.” 

Momentum for access to MAT treatment for incarcerated individuals is gaining traction locally and nationally. The Department of Justice recently issued legal guidance, which outlines how the ADA protects people with OUD who are in treatment or recovery from discrimination. The Washington State Health Care Authority also issued guidance for OUD medication in jails, highlighting potential benefits which may include reduction in morbidity and mortality, reduced interaction with the criminal legal system and reduced withdrawal complications.   

The Washington State Legislature also provided $5 million in funding for the 2022 fiscal year to increase the number of jails in the state offering MAT. 

The settlement formally concluded in May, but the ACLU fully expects Whatcom County to continue these systems now that the settlement has ended.  

In addition to Cooke, the plaintiffs are represented by ACLU-WA attorney John Midgley and cooperating attorneys Bart Freedman, Christina Elles, Todd Nunn, and Paul Bruene from law firm K&L Gates.

For more information on the case, visit this link: Kortlever et al. v. Whatcom County