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Patrick says he will look into death at Bridgewater

Governor Deval Patrick on Wednesday made his first public comments about a 2009 homicide at Bridgewater State Hospital, calling the death of 23-year-old Joshua K. Messier “tragic” and saying he has embarked on his own search for answers.

“There have been conflicting reviews within corrections, and I’m looking for some answers there myself,” Patrick said, referring to the state Department of Correction, which oversees the medium-security prison.

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The Boston Sunday Globe reported that Messier, a paranoid schizophrenic, was killed after a psychotic episode when seven guards with no training in mental health disorders placed him in four-point restraints, binding his wrists and ankles to a small bed. They then stood around idly as he died.

In response to questions in a State House hallway, Patrick said Messier’s death raises questions about the use of restraints, and he suggested that prison officials may be reevaluating their role in correction policy. “The whole question of the use of restraints is one that we’ve been working on, thinking about,” he said.

Patrick hinted he may have something to say about the matter during a speech Thursday morning, when he is scheduled to address a gathering at the University of Massachusetts Boston on state prisoners’ reentry into society.

In a scene captured on surveillance video, two of the seven guards in Messier’s cell the night he died pushed down hard on his back, pressing his chest toward his knees, while Messier was sitting on the small bed with his hands cuffed behind his back. The maneuver, sometimes called “suitcasing,” is prohibited in Massachusetts prisons because of the risk of suffocation.

Despite the ruling by a state medical examiner that Messier’s death was a homicide, no one has been prosecuted or even punished.

Patrick said he respects Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz’s “prerogative” in deciding to drop a criminal investigation without presenting evidence to a grand jury, but he declined to endorse Cruz’s decision.

“I’m not commenting on whether his decision was the right one or the wrong one,” Patrick said. “I have no control over that. But I do have control over outcomes at DOC.”

When told of Patrick’s remarks, Lisa Brown, Messier’s mother, said she was disappointed that Patrick did not find fault with Cruz.

“I wonder whether he’d still respect District Attorney Cruz’s prerogative if this had happened to one of his loved ones,” she said.

Messier’s parents — Brown and Kevin Messier — have filed a civil lawsuit against nine guards, two nurses, Bridgewater State Hospital, and the Department of Correction.

Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, the state’s leading prisoner rights organization, said she was gratified to learn that Patrick is taking a personal interest in the Messier case after five years of official silence by the Department of Correction.

Joshua Messier

Joshua Messier

“I’m very pleased the governor is recognizing his authority over outcomes at the DOC so we can get some answers for Joshua Messier’s family and the public,” she said.

Despite its name, Bridgewater State Hospital is a medium-security prison that provides mental health treatment to mentally ill prison inmates and mental health patients. According to the Department of Correction, about 40 percent of the men admitted to Bridgewater are sent there for psychiatric evaluations, including evaluations to determine whether a defendant is competent to stand trial.

Messier was admitted to Bridgewater in 2009 for a psychiatric evaluation after staffers from the psychiatric unit at Harrington Memorial Hospital in Southbridge filed misdemeanor assault and battery charges against him.

Medical records reviewed by the Globe show that Messier was often combative during psychotic states characterized by auditory and visual hallucinations.

The Globe article outlined some of the “conflicting reviews” of Messier’s death within the Department of Correction, based on agency documents.

First, the two guards who pushed down on Messier’s back — Derek Howard and John C. Raposo — were cited for misconduct by the Department of Correction’s Internal Affairs unit.

Then, an assistant deputy commissioner, Karen Hetherson, in her executive review of the Internal Affairs report, wrote in 2011 that “no misconduct was found against staff,” although she also recommended that Howard and Raposo attend refresher training in the use of restraints.

But in January 2013, the Department of Correction’s Special Operations Division rejected Bridgewater’s explanation for the use of force in Messier’s death, citing the guards for violating a provision that bars suitcasing in state prisons, and a second provision that requires them to “maintain observation of a restrained inmate to recognize breathing difficulties or loss of consciousness.”

Special Operations reviews all uses of force in the state prison system and refers its findings to Commissioner Luis S. Spencer. Spencer has yet to take action on the 2013 report.

When asked for his views on the amount of time it has taken the Department of Correction to complete its review of the use of force in Messier’s death, Patrick said, “I have some thoughts about that,” but would not elaborate.

Patrick’s speech Thursday comes on the heels of a New York State legal agreement that will reduce the use of solitary confinement to discipline state prison inmates, and prohibit the use of solitary for prisoners under age 18.

The agreement was negotiated by the New York Civil Liberties Union following a lawsuit it filed on behalf of three inmates.

Michael Rezendes can be reached at michael.rezendes
@globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @RezGlobe.

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