'Something has to change': lawyer calls medication denial for inmates 'a problem'

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'Something has to change': lawyer calls medication denial for inmates 'a problem'

The pendulum in prisons and jails has swung too far toward keeping prescription medications out of the hands of inmates, at the expense of those who need their prescriptions for painkillers or other medications, says a New Brunswick criminal defence lawyer.

Leslie Matchim represents Timothy Sappier of Tobique First Nation and was successful in his argument to the New Brunswick Court of Appeal that his client's interim release from custody should not be revoked despite new, alleged, crimes by his client because Sappier was not given his long-standing prescription medication while incarcerated.

"Something has to change and Mr. Sappier is a case in point," said Matchim, who was authorized by Sappier to speak about the issue and the March 21 ruling by Justice Barbara Baird on a Crown motion to revoke Sappier's interim release. 

Baird denied the Crown's motion, stating in her ruling that Sappier's detention was "not in the public interest" after Matchim pointed to Sappier becoming delusional after about four months of not receiving his medication while in the Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia after being sentenced to 30 months for conspiracy to traffic in methamphetamine.

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Sappier, who is approximately 40 years of age, is alleged to have committed theft at a convenience store less than 48 hours after being granted his release from prison pending appeal in December 2016. The RCMP officer who arrested him was so concerned about Sappier's mental health at the time of the arrest that he took him to the hospital in Perth-Andover.

'A problem for a long time'

"It's been a problem for a long time," said Matchim. "It's something we on the front line run into frequently.

"It seems to be a rather inflexible, rigid approach they take — that 'You don't need prescriptions and we'll do an assessment when you come into our system,'" said Matchim.

"The default seems to be zero medication unless and until we're informed by 'our staff' that you need it," he said. "That's an approach that I and other colleagues object to.

"When you have a medical doctor in New Brunswick prescribing you with a prescription, one can assume that should be the default — that you should have access to your prescriptions."

Sappier had been taking Ativan for years to deal with anxiety and panic issues, but became no longer lucid after not receiving the medication while in the prison system, said Matchim.

"I can assure you that in my dealings with Mr. Sappier it was very, very apparent that something was atrociously off the rails," said Matchim.

Easy fix

The lawyer says he doesn't really understand the argument that the penal system needs to guard against prescription medications becoming contraband in the prison system. Any concern about inmates trafficking their prescriptions in prison could be dealt with by having inmates receive their medication directly from a prison official on appointment, said Matchim.

"It's a very easy thing," said Matchim. "I don't think we are talking about anything that is overly onerous, to have medication time once a day or three times a day, or what have you.

"It eliminates any possibility of dealing."

Even in instances where the medication involved is addictive, such as painkillers like OxyContin, more needs to be done to wean inmates from their use, said Matchim.

"There is a lot of middle ground here that can be explored that could appease the problems associated with having these dependencies on narcotics that are being abused, versus persons who have a real need," he said.

"The cold-turkey stop is causing more trouble for everybody," said Matchim.

"When you have people that are on medications and they have been long term, to just instantly and suddenly stop, it just wreaks havoc."