After pleading guilty to violating his parole for a small amount of marijuana, Shazaad Husein was given a choice: stop taking the medication prescribed for his heroin addiction, or stay locked up on Rikers Island for a year. He wound up staying on Rikers for around six months before a judge ordered his release.
"They kidnapped me," Husein told Gothamist in early June, while he was still being held on Rikers. "They blatantly just violated me by keeping me in here."
Husein was supposed to get off Rikers by spending 45 days at a drug treatment program at Edgecombe, a small state prison in Washington Heights, before being released back out on parole. Instead, Husein was told that Edgecombe does not admit inmates who are receiving medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for heroin addiction.
The state corrections systems in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine have established MAT programs for opioid addiction, but New York does not have a single state prison where MAT its fully available.
Husein was prescribed the anti-opioid medication buprenorphine (also known by its brand name Suboxone) after his release on parole in 2017 and again in 2018. He could have stopped his treatment, but his doctor on Rikers told him that he should keep taking his medicine.
"He didn't recommend me to come off it," Husein recalled. "They can't just take you off of that. He said it might hinder your chance for rehabilitation. You might relapse."
Newly-released prisoners are at least "40 times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than someone in the general population," a 2018 North Carolina study found.
So Husein followed the doctor's orders and stayed on Rikers.
"It’s Kafkaesque," said Lorainne McEvilley, director of the Legal Aid Society's parole revocation defense unit, whose lawyers represented Husein.
"They are forcing parole violators to make the choice between keeping their lifesaving medication or going to prison for a lengthy sentence," McEvilley said.
Rikers Island (JB Nicholas / Gothamist)
Drug overdoses killed more than 702,000 Americans between 1999 and 2017,
according to the Center for Disease Control, and 68 percent of those deaths involved opioids. In New York State, opioid overdose deaths increased nearly threefold from 2010 to 2016.
Apart from deaths, more than two million Americans were addicted to opioids in 2017. More than half of state prisoners and two-thirds of sentenced jail inmates are addicted to drugs, according to a June 2017 report by the Justice Department.
MAT is the most effective treatment for opioid addiction, and is the declared standard of care, according to the federal Department of Health & Human Services. Three drugs are approved by the Federal Drug Administration for MAT: methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone.
Of these, methadone and buprenorphine are preferred because they do not require detoxification to work, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Buprenorphine is more practically suited for jails and prisons because it "can be prescribed or dispensed in physician offices, significantly increasing treatment access," federal regulatory authorities say.
MAT has been available on Rikers Island, a city jail, since 1987 (it's the only correctional facility in the country certified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as an opioid treatment provider).
New York State's prison system only provides methadone to pregnant inmates, and to short-term parole violators participating in two small pilot programs. Otherwise, the state’s prisons are "unable to receive patients who are managing their opioid use disorder with methadone or buprenorphine," Dr. Patricia Yang, the city's Correctional Health Services czar, said in November 2018.
Methadone and buprenorphine, Yang stressed, are the "gold‐standard treatment for opioid use disorder."
Without methadone or buprenorphine, new inmates with opioid addictions undergo forced detoxification. Tracey Mitchell detailed her experience for The Daily Beast: "By the second day, I was hallucinating, searching fruitlessly for drugs in my blankets, and trying to stop a physical assault from another inmate who wanted me to shut up."
"By the third day," Mitchell wrote, "I prayed for death."
A bill to establish a unified statewide program to make all three FDA-approved MAT treatments available to state prisoners and county jail inmates passed the New York State Senate but failed to clear the Assembly.
In testimony before an Assembly hearing on the legislation in November 2018, the acting commissioner of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Anthony Annucci, acknowledged that 78 percent of state prisoners have "an identified substance abuse or alcohol treatment need."
Annucci then appeared to suggest that no DOCCS prisoners had an active addiction.
"There's no one that I am aware of that has become a significant problem," Annucci said.
Sean Byrne, executive deputy commissioner for the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, testified that while someone might not be physically dependent, "they still have the addiction."
When offered a chance to clarify his remarks, Annucci asserted DOCCS had transformed itself as an agency from what it once had been, implicitly acknowledging that while there had been a time when illegal drugs were widely available in state prisons, but implying that was no longer true.
"This agency has changed dramatically where we were, in like the late ‘80s," Annucci claimed.
DOCCS does provide training in administering the overdose reversal drug naloxone to soon-to-be-released prisoners, and offers them naloxone itself when they are released. Annucci said the program had saved lives.
Pressed for when DOCCS would implement a state-wide MAT program, Annucci said "I'm not at that juncture of giving you a hard and fast prediction."
An excerpt of Husein's handwritten habeas corpus petition (screenshot)
Husein said he "dabbled" with heroin as a teenager in the Bronx in the early ‘90s. It became a habit after he shot and killed a childhood friend by accident.
"He brought the gun into the van. He pointed it toward my friend and pulled the trigger. Then he pointed it toward me and pulled the trigger. Then I grabbed it out of his hands and pointed it at him and pulled the trigger."
That time, the gun fired.
"I was getting recurring dreams about it" Husein said. "We grew up together. Our families knew each other. His moms knew my moms."
After more than a dozen arrests, and about as many years behind bars later, Husein was incarcerated in a remote prison in rural New York. The opioid crisis bubbling up outside the prison was about to seep inside.
"It hit upstate and ran rampant,” Husein recalled. “They didn't have a urine test for it. I got hooked on it."
More arrests, and more years in prison later, Husein was again released from another upstate New York facility. This time, in April 2017, he was 42.
"It was definitely time for a change," Husein said, citing a 2013 marriage. "I was done with coming back-and-forth to jail."
Husein realized he needed help, so he obtained a buprenorphine prescription, a job and lived a low-key life away from trouble in Queens.
"I was doing pretty good out here this time," he said.
Then, just after midnight October 31, 2018, Husein said he was on his way home from work when he was stopped by the police.
An NYPD officer saw Husein holding a burning joint, according to the criminal complaint he filed against Husein. The officer searched Husein and the backpack he was carrying, and allegedly found a nickel-bag of marijuana, a knife, a box-cutter, a pair of pliers and a wire-cutter.
"I was doing maintenance. Cleaning up offices, studios, condos. Various jobs. Whatever needed to be done I would do. Something like a handyman," Husein explained. The knife, Husein said, was a small one, four inches or less in length, which is legal to possess.
After a month in jail, Husein pled guilty to misdemeanor criminal possession of a weapon on December 6, 2018, according to the Queens DA’s office. He was sentenced to 30 days time-served. Husein said he pled guilty not because he was guilty, but because he thought it would be the fastest way to get off of Rikers.
However, because Husein was found with a small amount of marijuana, this violated the terms of his parole for a 2010 burglary conviction. The law does not allow bail for alleged parole violators. So Husein continued to be held on Rikers, even after being sentenced to 30 days time-served for the knife, while an administrative parole revocation hearing process for possessing the pot played out.
Although they're held on Rikers, parole revocation hearings are controlled by the state agency DOCCS, which oversees both New York's prison system and its parole apparatus.
Parole violators like Husein make up about 20 percent of Rikers population, costing city taxpayers more than $400 million per year, according to a June 2019 Lippman Commission report.
While the overall number of Rikers' inmates decreased by 8.8 percent in 2018, the number of technical parole violators held on Rikers increased 5.1 percent that year, according to the State Division of Criminal Justice Statistics. Their number reached a 12-month peak high of 811 technical violators in February 2019, DCJS reports. As of last month, 702 people were held on Rikers for technical parole violations.
Instead of elected judges, DOCCS parole revocation hearings are conducted by administrative law judges.The hearings themselves are held at the Rikers Island Judicial Center—a quasi-judicial outpost largely hidden from public view.
Administrative Law Judge Eva Moravec presided over Husein's final parole revocation hearing. Judge Moravec told Husein if he admitted to possessing marijuana she would sentence him to a 45-day drug treatment program at the Edgecombe.
Husein took the deal. When he did, Judge Moravec said, "In exchange, you are going to get twelve/Edgecomb as I explained it to you." That meant Husein would be sent to Edgecombe for the 45-day program; if he got kicked out of the program, he would have to serve 12 months in state prison.
Husein appeared to have a concern about the agreement, the transcript suggests, but Judge Moravec reassured him: "It will be fine. Before you know it, you'll be out and start a fresh new year, all right?"
Seven months later Husein was still on Rikers.
Rikers Island (JB Nicholas / Gothamist)
DOCCS says Edgecombe offers "comprehensive substance abuse treatment" for "parolees and parole violators."
However, DOCCS excludes parolees receiving the two most effective anti-opioid medications, methadone and buprenorphine, according to an official "Edgecombe Eligibility" memoranda obtained by Gothamist and an email Rikers' Chief Administrative Law Judge Rhonda Tomlinson sent to all Rikers parole judges in November of 2018.
When Husein's lawyers told Judge Moravec that officials wouldn't send him to Edgecombe because he was prescribed buprenorphine, Moravec directed them to find out whether another inpatient drug-treatment program would accept him, emails show. It would not. Instead, that program "deemed him appropriate for outpatient," an email says.
Judge Moravec decided to restore Husein to parole supervision, more emails obtained by Gothamist show. But he never was. Then Moravec took a leave of absence and resigned, effective May 15. That's when Rhonda Tomlinson, Rikers' Chief Administrative Law Judge, assumed control of Moravec's cases, including Husein's.
"Husein could choose between doing 12 months or taper off [of buprenorphine] for Edgecombe," Tomlinson said, according to Joelle Ryu, a Legal Aid attorney who represented Husein, and Juni Ozzengett, Ryu's supervisor. When they asked Tomlinson to give Husein a new hearing, Tomlinson denied that too, they said.
"I agreed to revoke and restore Mr. Husein. I cannot understand why CALJ Tomlinson held him for 12 months when I clearly intended otherwise," Judge Moravec wrote in an email to Ryu dated April 22, 2019.
Tomlinson has been pressuring the administrative law judges she oversees on Rikers to send parolees back to prison, Gothamist reported back in April.
Husein said he felt something was wrong with officials' refusal to send him to Edgecombe just because his doctor prescribed him buprenorphine.
"That program Edgecombe is specifically for drug users," he said. "Parolees who violate because of drugs. It makes no sense."
Husein himself filed a handwritten habeas corpus petition asking a court to release him back in March. But State Attorney General Letitia James' office opposed Husein's release, and the case stalled. Assistant Attorney General David T. Cheng even argued in legal filings (emphasis in original) that the “entire point of Edgecombe is not to utilize 'drug replacement medications' like methadone, suboxone, and buprenorphine.”
“If opioid replacement medications were all that an addict needed to be fully rehabilitated, rehabilitation programs would not exist anymore—all an addict would need is a prescription,” Cheng wrote.
James' office made this argument despite being warned in 2017 by the U.S. Attorney that it violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
Acting State Supreme Court Justice Alvin M. Yearwood granted Husein's habeas corpus petition, and ordered his immediate release on June 14. Husein's right to due process of law was violated, Justice Yearwood held. He "was never given a fair opportunity to complete the agreed upon alternative sentence of 45 days," the six-page decision says.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Letitia James declined to comment.
Justice Yearwood's decision called out Rikers' Chief Administrative Law Judge Tomlinson by name, accusing her of wrongly keeping Husein detained. But for "CALJ Tomlinson's arbitrary decision to not fulfill ALJ Moravec's intention, petitioner would be restored to parole supervision," the de Blasio appointee wrote.
Husein was released three days after Justice Yearwood issued his decision.
Former parole judge Moravec told Gothamist that Husein's case was "emblematic of the due process violations that have occurred at the Rikers Island Judicial Center, as a result of Chief Administrative Law Judge Rhonda Tomlinson's interference with the administrative law judges' judicial autonomy." (Tomlinson did not respond to our request for comment.)
"I am relieved that Supreme Court Justice Yearwood ordered Mr. Husein's immediate release," she added.
DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey said, "The Department is reviewing the Court’s decision and has no comment on this ongoing litigation."
Annie Ramniceanu, the director for addiction treatment programs at the Vermont Department of Corrections, admitted that providing MAT in jails and prisons is "a very big change in correctional practice," but one that must be done.
"We need to treat opioid use disorder and not pretend it does not exist," Ramniceanu said. "Not treating is a potentially lethal decision."
A few hours after his release, Husein said his parole officer ordered him to report to the Bellevue Men's Shelter.
"She said if wasn't there by nine she'd violate me,” Husein said. “This is my first night out. I got to spend a whole half-hour with my wife and mom."
Husein said he was released without even a single day's supply of MAT, a prescription to get it, or a drug-treatment program to go to.
On July 9, police stopped Husein as he was allegedly driving through Kew Gardens without a driver's license in a car with a broken windshield. The cops said that he had crack and marijuana on him. The Queens DA asked that Husein be held on $5,000 cash bail, and he is now back on Rikers Island.