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The Boston Globe

Metro

Adrian Walker

Bridgewater hospital a prison failing its patients

Joshua K. Messier died at Bridgewater State Hospital in 2009 while being placed in restraints. His death, which never should have happened, was a window into a deeply troubled state hospital that has probably outlived its mission.

The state recently agreed to pay Messier’s family $3 million in damages to settle a lawsuit. But that doesn’t begin to address the problems at the hospital — the rare institution that serves as both a mental hospital and a prison, and not necessarily in that order.

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More of the tragic dysfunction plaguing Bridgewater was outlined in a story in the Sunday Globe. Reporter Michael Rezendes detailed the inexplicably frequent use of restraints and isolation to control patients at Bridgewater, even after a decade of promises to cut back on both questionable practices.

Patients at Bridgewater are restrained at a dramatically higher rate than in any other Massachusetts state hospital, and at a substantially higher rate than in 2004.

That means that patients are placed in restraints or held in inhumane isolation at a rate not seen at other state institutions. If there is any persuasive medical justification for this, the state has failed to offer it.

Bridgewater’s population of roughly 325 includes both convicted criminals and people civilly committed for evaluation but not convicted of crimes. It also houses people found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Even as they vow to cut back on the use of restraints, state correction officials defend it as the only means to calm sometimes dangerous residents. They say the unique mix of patients makes it impossible to compare Bridgewater with other state institutions.

Critics scoff at that. “People who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity are incredibly ill,’’ said Leslie Walker (no relation), of Prisoners’ Legal Services, an advocacy group. “But it’s not looked at like an illness. It’s looked at as something you could control if you were a better person.”

Aside from settling the Messier family lawsuit, the Patrick administration has responded to the furor over his death by disciplining six correction officials.

While the governor seems genuine in his horror at this case, suspending employees doesn’t address the deeper problem at Bridgewater, which is that its structure doesn’t make sense. It has been clear for at least two decades that running a facility that is part hospital and part jail doesn’t work. Guards are demonstrably ill-trained and ill-equipped to deal with mental patients, and patients don’t belong in a jail in the first place.

The problem at Bridgewater isn’t about a few rogue staffers: The whole place needs to be rethought. Mentally ill patients should be in hospitals, not overseen by prison guards.

The Messier case is not the only outrage. The family of a 31-year-old patient named Peter Minich filed suit against Bridgewater and the state last month, arguing that Minich has been held in restraints and in seclusion for long periods of time, in violation of state law .

Almost 20 years ago a study of Bridgewater noted the conflict between what it called ”security vs. treatment.” Even back then, it was clear that a prison doesn’t make much of a hospital. But vows of reform came to little. Forgotten promises are an old story at Bridgewater.

Walker, the prison advocate, noted that the Messier and Minich families are exceptional for having the resources and sophistication to fight back against abuse of patients, who are often seen as “throw-away people.”

They don’t deserve to be.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.
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