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Prisoner rights group hits Mass. over patient’s death

Says ‘no excuse’ for delay in review of Bridgewater case

The state’s leading prisoner rights organization on Tuesday upbraided the Department of Correction for its failure to complete an investigation into the death of a young mental health patient at Bridgewater State Hospital nearly five years ago.

“There is no excuse for taking so long to investigate and discipline officers who mistreat and abuse prisoners,” said Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. “The tortoise-like pace is just unthinkable for a family that wants answers.”

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Walker was referring to the 2009 death of Joshua K. Messier, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation who was killed a month later while prison guards untrained in mental health disorders were placing him in four-point restraints.

The Boston Sunday Globe reported that a state medical examiner, Mindy J. Hull, had ruled Messier’s death was a homicide, but that none of the seven guards who were in Messier’s cell the night he died have been prosecuted or even punished.

Walker, like others familiar with the plight of the mentally ill in the state prison system, also faulted Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz for declining to pursue criminal charges against the guards, or present evidence to a grand jury.

“I would think this would warrant a major investigation,” Walker said. “What’s the harm in going before a grand jury and seeing what good citizens think?”

Philip W. Johnston, who oversaw operations at Bridgewater State Hospital during the 1980s and early 1990s as the state’s secretary of human services, also cited Cruz for deciding against launching a full investigation, instead restricting his probe to a review of State Police interviews conducted in the days following Messier’s death and a private conversation with Hull.

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“The lack of action on the part of the district attorney is outrageous,” said Johnston, a former state Democratic Party chairman. “The district attorney should move ahead with a serious investigation as to the culpability of staff involved in this young man’s death.”

Cruz, a veteran Republican prosecutor, Tuesday declined to speak to the criticism. But in earlier statements to the Globe, his office said Cruz dropped the criminal probe after Hull told investigators she could not identify a specific cause of death.

Messier’s parents, Lisa Brown and Kevin Messier, are suing nine guards, two nurses and the Department of Correction over their son’s death.

In surveillance video posted by the Globe on Sunday, two of the seven guards can be seen pressing down hard on Messier’s back while he was seated on a bed with his hands cuffed behind him. The practice, sometimes known as “suitcasing,” is strictly prohibited in state prisons because it can cause a restrained inmate to suffocate.

In addition to Hull’s autopsy, which noted blunt force injuries to nearly every part of Messier’s body, the state’s Disabled Persons Protection Commission in 2011 found there was “sufficient evidence to conclude” that the two guards — Derek Howard and John C. Raposo — were responsible for Messier’s death.

Two internal Department of Correction investigations also faulted the guards, including one by the department’s Special Operations Division, which is responsible for reviewing all uses of force in the state’s prison system and referring its findings to Commissioner Luis S. Spencer.

On Tuesday, the department released a statement from Spencer saying that after a 2011 review of Messier’s death, Howard and Raposo “were retrained and officer training was significantly enhanced.”

The statement made no mention of the findings after the inquiry by the department’s Special Operations Division.

Governor Deval Patrick, who has faced criticism during his last year in office for a growing list of problems within state agencies, declined Tuesday to answer questions about Messier’s death.

However, several candidates to succeed him called for more training for the guards at Bridgewater State Hospital, and better management by department administrators.

“It’s really an outrage because this was a preventable tragedy that ended up with the loss of life of someone in state care,” said Dr. Joseph Avellone, a Harvard-educated surgeon and candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. “The state needs to undertake a complete review of the system we’re using, and the training we’re using, to make sure this type of tragedy doesn’t happen again.”

Juliette Kayyem, another Democratic primary candidate and a former Globe columnist, took issue with Attorney General Martha Coakley for the role she is playing defending the Correction Department and the guards in the lawsuit filed by Messier’s parents.

“Instead of opposing a parents’ plea for answers and protection of vulnerable individuals, the attorney general should be joining them in their fight,” Kayyem said. “Everyone should be fighting for Joshua, not against him.”

Coakley, another Democratic primary candidate, already has been criticized for finding fault with the state’s Department of Children and Families while defending the agency from a lawsuit filed by Children’s Rights, a New York-based watchdog group.

Now, she is speaking out on behalf of the mentally ill while defending the guards associated with Messier’s death.

“Martha knows first-hand and personally about the tragic and horrible impact mental illness can have on families, having lost a brother to the disease,” said her spokesman, Brad Puffer, in a statement Tuesday. “She feels it is important that we increase services for treatment, and that we do everything we can to remove the stigma that sometimes puts up roadblocks to getting the necessary help.”

Advocates for the mentally ill said the discrimination the afflicted often face may have played a role in the guards’ treatment of Messier in the minutes before he died.

“Time and time again we see a different standard when the standards are applied to a person with a disability," said Christine M. Griffin, the executive director of the Disability Law Center in Boston.

Walker, of Prisoners’ Legal Rights, sounded a similar theme, noting that the 2003 prison death of John J. Geoghan, a longtime Catholic priest and notorious child abuser, sparked a sweeping review of practices in the state’s prison system.

“Why did the death of John Geoghan warrant a major, two-year investigation, while the death of this young mental health patient does not?” she said.

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

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