Governor Deval Patrick and a large group of senior staff members visited troubled Bridgewater State Hospital on Thursday and announced that the administration will bring in a nationally recognized specialist to help reduce the medium-security prison’s overreliance on restraining mentally ill men, strapping their wrists and ankles to a bed, or isolating them in small cells for days or weeks at a time.
During a meeting of about two dozen officials that included top Bridgewater administrators and advocates for the mentally ill, Patrick asked for a report outlining short-, medium-, and long-term solutions to the issues confronting the facility, ranging from the excessive use of seclusion and restraints to whether patients and inmates treated at Bridgewater should be under the care of the Department of Mental Health, rather than the Department of Correction.
After the meeting, Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral told reporters the administration believes clinicians and prison guards at Bridgewater use seclusion and restraints too often and noted that Massachusetts is one of only two states — Iowa is the other — that treat mentally ill persons involved in the criminal justice system in a facility run by a department of correction.
Still, Cabral said Patrick’s focus is likely to be on improving treatment for mentally ill men held at Bridgewater, which has a population of around 325.
Patrick’s visit to Bridgewater follows a series of Globe reports citing the questionable use of seclusion and restraints at Bridgewater, including the events leading to the 2009 death of Joshua Messier, a 23-year-old mental health patient who died while guards were putting him in four-point restraints.
The medical examiner ruled Messier’s death a homicide, but the prosecutor declined to press charges and no one was disciplined until the Globe’s February article. Following the article, Patrick suspended three guards, fired an assistant deputy commissioner, and issued letters of reprimand to Commissioner Luis S. Spencer and Bridgewater Superintendent Robert Murphy.
The Globe also reported that Bridgewater’s use of seclusion and restraints increased 16 percent since 2004, despite years of promises to reduce the use of the increasingly discredited practices, and increased 27 percent since Messier’s death.
On Thursday, Patrick also met with the parents of two Bridgewater mental health patients. The parents appeared at the facility uninvited and asked to meet with the governor to present their views on the care their sons have received, which has included prolonged periods of seclusion and restraints.
“He took the time to come down here, and that’s a first step,” said Joanne Minich, the mother of mental health patient Peter Minich and a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Bridgewater State Hospital, after meeting with Patrick. “I told him the system needs to be changed. What happened to my son and what’s happening to others is not right.”
After Patrick’s meeting with advocates and Bridgewater staff members, Cabral said the administration will retain Joan Gillece to help reduce the use of seclusion and restraints at the prison. Gillece, project director for the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, has played a leading role in training staff at mental health facilities to reduce their reliance on such measures through a program known as the “Six Core Strategies.”
The program focuses on techniques designed to reduce violence and the factors that cause violence to escalate into situations in which staff members believe use of seclusion or restraints is the only way to guarantee the safety of patients and clinicians.
Christine M. Griffin, executive director of the Disability Law Center, a federally funded advocacy group, attended the meeting and praised Patrick’s selection of Gillece.
“She’s a wonderful choice and has experience working in prisons,” said Griffin, whose organization is in the midst of a sweeping investigation of treatment and practices at Bridgewater. “She can help them reduce the use of restraints and, frankly, eliminate it. It can be done.”