Drug Researchers' Roundtable – Where Medicine is Contraband: Examining the Use of Buprenorphine in Jails and Prisons

New York, NY

In this talk, Dr. Kimberly Sue explores how and why medications, particularly a common treatment for opioid use disorder called buprenorphine-naloxone (suboxone), have come to be labeled as “contraband” within the majority of American prisons and jails. Based on ethnographic work conducted in Massachusetts institutions among women who use drugs, Dr. Sue examines the ongoing tensions between medical and security staff, as well as evolving attitudes towards self-care, well-being and recovery from substance use disorders.

How does a close examination of the use of these medications by incarcerated women reflect underlying American orientations towards pain, addiction and suffering? Dr. Sue posits that buprenorphine "diversion" in this context reflects and reveals widespread networks of self-care and care between and among incarcerated women in settings where criminal justice authorities have frequently denied women access to evidence-based standards of care for substance use disorders.


Dr. Kimberly Sue is the Medical Director of Harm Reduction Coalition based in New York, New York. She completed her medical training at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in Internal Medicine-Primary Care in June 2018 with a particular focus on inpatient and outpatient substance use disorders within general medicine. She is a graduate of the Harvard Medical School Social Science MD-PhD Program (PhD, 2014, MD 2015). Her PhD work in sociocultural (medical) anthropology examines the intersection of US prison systems, addiction policy, mental health and drug treatment. Dr. Sue’s ethnographic research is based in Massachusetts at the state women’s prison, a Boston jail, and a community-based buprenorphine treatment program, where she followed the experiences and treatment of women addicted to heroin through the prison and jail systems and back in their home communities.