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OPINION | Roderick MacLeish and Stephen Delinsky

Mental illness not a crime; why treat it that way?

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THINK FOR a moment about the unconditional love we have for our children. Nothing prepares us for it. The bond continues unbroken as our son or daughter goes through the various phases of life. We try to be the best possible parents, sometimes under challenging circumstances.

Now imagine that your child is a young man who experiences medical problems in late adolescence. In an instant his life and yours changes. You are in the doctor’s office and the diagnosis is established; it is schizophrenia. There is no cure. His life is by no means over, but it is going to be different.

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Your son ends up in a state hospital. Staffers file misdemeanor assault charges against him, and he ends up in a prison even though he has never been convicted of a crime.

When your son arrives at the prison, he is strip searched and almost immediately housed in a room behind solid steel doors and, as time goes on, left alone for long stretches with almost no human contact. His “room” consists of a sink/toilet combination and a thin mattress. No reading materials, pictures of family, phone, computer, or television. His meals are delivered through a slot in the door. Every other day, he can talk to you on the phone (also handed to him through the slot), but the line goes dead automatically after 10 minutes.

When your son protests, yells, or stands on the sink in his cell, he is often removed from the room with the solid steel door, taken to another room, tied down to a bed where he cannot move his arms, legs, or even sometimes his head. He can stay tied down for periods as long as two full days. He cannot move around, lie on his side, or change his position. When he needs to defecate, a bed pan is pushed underneath his buttocks, and he remains tied up.

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Few of us would want to live in a society that would treat our children in this fashion. If it were occurring in another part of the world, we would express outrage and call it torture. But it is all too common at Bridgewater State Hospital.

There are almost 2.5 million Americans with schizophrenia, an organic brain disease where the primary risk factor is genetic. Scientists do not completely understand the cause of this disease, but it is not caused by volitional acts. Schizophrenia typically targets young men and women between the ages of 18 and 30.

If proper treatment is provided and accepted, many human beings with schizophrenia can live in supervised or even unsupervised settings, become gainfully employed and even have extended periods where they are symptom-free. Some patients do require treatment in secure settings, but never in a prison. One of the important treatment modalities is the opportunity for social interaction with others.

In 1988, we negotiated a settlement agreement involving Bridgewater that created a secure, therapeutic hospital setting where men with serious mental illness and no criminal history could be treated in a humane way by the Department of Mental Health. In 2003, the hospital was defunded. So now patients like our current client, Peter Minich, who suffers from schizophrenia and has never been convicted of a crime, are routinely incarcerated at Bridgewater and locked behind solid steel doors in prolonged isolation. Joshua Messier, another young man with paranoid schizophrenia, also ended up at Bridgewater. He died of a heart attack after correctional officers forcibly tried to place him in mechanical restraints.

Governor Deval Patrick has a chance to end all of this and the next months will be critical to see if he has the leadership and commitment to do so. If he does not, then his administration’s barbaric treatment of the seriously mentally ill may well be his political epitaph.

Roderick MacLeish and Stephen Delinsky are attorneys with the Cambridge firm of Clark Hunt Ahern & Embry.
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