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Feds and Massachusetts Dept. of Correction reach agreement over mental health care for prisoners

U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins for the District of Massachusetts speaks with reporters in her conference room on Dec. 19.
Pat Greenhouse
The Boston Globe via Getty Images
U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins for the District of Massachusetts speaks with reporters in her conference room on Dec. 19.

After almost two years of negotiating, the Massachusetts U.S. attorney has reached agreement with the state Department of Correction regarding the treatment of prisoners struggling with mental illnesses.

The agreement calls for the following changes at DOC facilities:

  • improved mental health care and training for correctional staff
  • creation of a new “intensive stabilization unit” for prisoners experiencing mental health crises who do not qualify for in-patient hospitalization
  • increased access to care and more documentation involving the treatment of people with acute mental illness who’ve been placed on what’s called a “mental health watch
  • the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee compliance with the agreement

Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins said in a statement Tuesday that the agreement was the result of “hard work and collaboration.” Prosecutors have an obligation, she said, to ensure that if someone is incarcerated, “they receive constitutional treatment and adequate mental and physical health care.”

“Our investigation found unconstitutional conditions and circumstances where incarcerated people in mental health crisis harmed themselves up to and including suicide,” Rollins said in the statement. “We must provide better mental health treatment in our carceral facilities. Statistics show that far too many of the incarcerated population suffers from significant mental health and substance use disorders, among other severe things.”

In 2018, federal officials began investigating the DOC’s mental health watch policies and the treatment of severely mentally ill prisoners. In November 2020, the Department of Justice issued its findings, which included that the DOC violated the constitutional rights of prisoners in mental health crisis, did not provide adequate mental health care and used prolonged mental health watches under restrictive housing conditions.

“This agreement ensures heightened supervision, increased out-of-cell contact with mental health staff, and intensive mental health care in a new treatment-focused housing unit when needed,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “These reforms will help ensure people receive the services they need when they are in crisis.”

The agreement resolves the federal claim that the DOC engaged in a pattern or practice that violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Under the agreement, the DOC does not admit any wrongdoing.

“The Department has been diligent, transparent, and cooperative with the DOJ to advance our shared goal of improving mental health care for those experiencing a mental health crisis,” DOC Commissioner Carol Mici said in a statement. “We remain deeply committed to the health and well-being of all entrusted to our care while ensuring the protection of their physical safety and civil rights.”

Rollins said her office will work closely with the DOC to correct any issues. Meanwhile, Dr. Reena Kapoor will serve as the independent monitor required to provide public reports on compliance.

Kapoor, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, previously oversaw settlement agreements with prisons in Illinois, Louisiana and Connecticut.

Prisoners’ rights advocates say they’re pleased by the agreement and hope it will result in long-lasting improvements in mental health treatment for those who are incarcerated.

“We’ve been hoping for a pretty extensive settlement in this investigation for some time and really appreciate the thoughtfulness and the thoroughness of it,” said Lizz Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts. “It’s clear why this has taken some time. It’s a positive development for sure. We’re definitely going to be closely watching to see what happens.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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