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Lawsuit targets isolation at Bridgewater hospital

Man’s condition alleged to decline with long seclusion, use of restraints

Joanne Minich with her son, Peter, about 2009, in California.

Minich family

Joanne Minich with her son, Peter, about 2009, in California.

The mother of a 31-year-old mentally ill Brookline man who has been held at Bridgewater State Hospital for more than a year is set to file a lawsuit Monday accusing prison officials of illegally keeping her son in seclusion or strapped to a bed for days and even weeks on end, according to the mother’s lawyer.

In the lawsuit, a copy of which was reviewed by the Globe, Joanne Minich says that her son Peter’s mental health is rapidly declining because prison administrators and clinicians have kept him alone in a small cell for 6,300 hours over the last 14 months and in four-point restraints with his wrists and ankles fastened to a small bed for 815 hours — or, in total, about 70 percent of the time he has been held at Bridgewater.

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“Mr. Minich’s psychological condition has substantially deteriorated as a result of his prolonged isolation and placement in a correction facility,” according to the lawsuit, expected to be filed in Norfolk Superior Court. Because of this, Minich, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, experienced “increasing levels of auditory hallucinations as well as paranoid thinking,” the suit alleges.

Neither Governor Deval Patrick’s office nor the Department of Correction, which received copies of the lawsuit on Friday, would comment on the Minich complaint.

The lawsuit comes in the aftermath of an uproar over the death of Bridgewater inmate Joshua K. Messier, 23, a patient who died in 2009 while guards were placing him in four-point restraints. After the Globe published a detailed account of Messier’s death, Patrick disciplined six correction officials and the state agreed to pay Messier’s family $3 million.

And Patrick spoke out against the use of seclusion and restraints with mentally ill inmates, saying that solitary confinement “should be reserved for the most exceptional situations.” He also said that unless a mentally ill inmate presents “a serious and immediate physical danger to himself or his fellow inmates, he should not be tied down, limb-by-limb in the 21st century here in Massachusetts.”

Minich says that her son has been repeatedly confined to seclusion in a small cell behind a steel door, or placed in restraints, for minor incidents such as licking the floor, standing on a sink, putting his head in a toilet, and touching another inmate on his leg.

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Her lawsuit also says that until recently, when her attorney met with Bridgewater officials, her son was deprived of sufficient reading materials, adequate clothing, and regular outdoor exercise, except for trips to a nearby hospital where he received electric shock treatment.

State law says seclusion and restraints may be used only “in cases of emergency” where an inmate or patient has committed an act of “extreme violence,” or presents the threat of such an act. In addition, it has been Bridgewater policy “to prevent, reduce, and strive to eliminate the use of seclusion and restraint” for at least six years.

Peter Minich was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia more than a decade ago after graduating from Wellesley High School. Like other mentally ill men held at Bridgewater, he has never been convicted of a crime. He was sent to Bridgewater for a psychiatric evaluation after assaulting a staff member in another facility — in his case, the psychiatric unit at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital — and has been held at Bridgewater for about 14 months.

In an interview with the Globe, Joanne Minich said she is filing the lawsuit to get her son released from Bridgewater — the state’s only prison for mentally ill inmates — and transferred to another facility. “I want to get him out,” she said. “He needs care, but not this kind of care.”

Peter’s father, Jan Minich, added, “We want to make sure other people aren’t treated like this.”

Joanne Minich’s attorney, Roderick MacLeish Jr., said the conditions he has found at Bridgewater while visiting Peter Minich resemble those he encountered during the 1980s, when he filed a landmark lawsuit over conditions there. After suing state officials over those conditions, MacLeish negotiated a settlement agreement to stop transferring to Bridgewater mental health patients who were not facing criminal charges. In addition to the agreement, the suit led to a Supreme Judicial Court decision that affirmed additional reforms, such as the required monitoring of inmates held in seclusion and restraints.

“Nothing’s changed,” said MacLeish, an attorney with the firm Clark, Hunt, Ahern & Embry. “In a civilized society we should not be putting people with an organic brain disease in prison, and we certainly shouldn’t be locking them up behind solid steel doors and depriving them of virtually all human contact.”

Noting that Minich’s parents are often required to visit Peter while he is standing in a cage smaller than a typical clerical work station, at times when he is wearing handcuffs and shackles, MacLeish also said the conditions at Bridgewater are “like something out of a Dickens novel.”

Stuart Grassian, a Newton psychiatrist contacted by the Globe, said he could not comment on the specific accusations in the lawsuit but said that, in general, the use of seclusion and restraints with mentally ill patients, particularly those diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, should be discouraged, except in rare circumstances and, even then, used only for brief periods of time.

“Seclusion isn’t something one thinks of as lasting weeks and months,” he said. “You think of something that lasts hours or minutes, until you can calm the person down, and you’re reaching out to that person all along the way.”

Grassian said that prolonged seclusion can be especially dangerous for someone diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia because it can make it more difficult for the person to tell the difference between reality and the interior voices or visions he sometimes experiences.

“Often, [the patient] is going to deteriorate to the point that he will almost inevitably become more psychotic,” said Grassian.

The Minich lawsuit is being filed against Department of Correction Commissioner Luis S. Spencer, Bridgewater Superintendent Robert Murphy, and MHM Services, a Virginia-based company that provides medical and mental heath services at Bridgewater.

Earlier this month, Patrick issued letters of reprimand to Spencer and Murphy following a preliminary investigation into the official response to Messier’s death, which was ruled a homicide in 2010. Spencer was disciplined for failing to act on an internal report that cited two prison guards for misconduct, while Murphy was reprimanded for allowing an internal report to languish at Bridgewater before forwarding it to other department officials.

More recently, the correction department and MHM Services settled a civil rights lawsuit filed by Messier’s parents for $3 million.

Joanne Minich’s lawsuit charges that Spencer has violated state law by not personally reviewing and signing all orders for seclusion and restraint at Bridgewater within 30 days. Had Spencer personally reviewed the forms, the lawsuit says, “he would have realized that Mr. Minich was spending thousands of hours in seclusion and mechanical restraint without lawful reason.”

In addition, the lawsuit says that Bridgewater staff and MHM employees have violated the law by failing to properly monitor Peter Minich while he is in seclusion or restraints.

Family members said Peter Minich was treated repeatedly for paranoid schizophrenia at McLean Hospital in Belmont until 2011, when the family’s private insurance coverage ran out and he was transferred to Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, a state-run facility.

Peter Minich’s parents said that their son’s condition deteriorated at Shattuck, where, for the first time, he became assaultive. In December of 2012 Peter Minich was charged with hitting a mental health worker with a chair and punching a registered nurse in the face, charges that led to his commitment at Bridgewater State Hospital.

Minich’s lawsuit argues that the filing of those criminal assault charges violated a Department of Mental Health “commissioner’s directive” that says mental health clinicians and other staffers should not press charges over actions attributable to a patient’s mental illness except in “rare” or “extraordinary” situations.

Marylou Sudders, the state’s mental health commissioner from 1996 to 2003 and the author of the directive, said in a Globe interview that she wrote the directive to protect mental health patients who are not always responsible for their actions from criminal charges and prison.

“It’s just wrong to file charges against someone because of their illness,” said Sudders, who is now an associate professor at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work.

MacLeish argues in the Minich lawsuit that the criminal charges filed against Peter Minich by Shattuck Hospital staffers represent a “bad faith” attempt to get around the agreement reached after his 1980s lawsuit to stop sending patients not charged with a crime to Bridgewater.

The lawsuit notes that a Bridgewater official told the Minichs that Peter was being secluded because “there is no other place for him to go.”

That was not always the case. The reforms negotiated by MacLeish in the 1980s included the creation of a psychiatric unit at Medfield State Hospital specially designed to house up to 50 violent — but noncriminal — patients. But in 2003, the state closed the specialized unit, which had moved to Taunton State Hospital, to save money.

As a consequence, Joanne Minich said, “There’s no help out there. It’s nonexistent.”

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

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