FOR DECADES, the Massachusetts prison system used solitary confinement to control violent and self-destructive prisoners who suffered from serious mental illness. It was a disastrous policy that contributed to inmate suicide rates four times the national average. Thanks, in large part, to a 2007 lawsuit by the Disability Law Center, state prisoners are no longer held for up to 23 hours a day in conditions akin to an 18th-century lunatic asylum.
To its credit, the state Department of Correction didn’t wait until the recent inking of a formal legal agreement with the Disability Law Center before creating humane alternatives to segregation cells. In 2008, the department opened a secure treatment center at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley. And two years later, it followed up with a special behavior-management unit at MCI Cedar Junction in Walpole.
Fifteen inmate suicides from 2005 to 2007 and numerous suicide attempts, assaults, and acts of self-mutilation by mentally ill prisoners took a terrible psychic and physical toll on correction officers, as well. Both prison advocates and the correction department appear pleased with the outcome of the negotiation. But US District Court Chief Judge Mark Wolf must approve the agreement, which is still under seal.
There’s little time to waste. About a quarter of the 11,000 inmates in the state suffer some form of mental illness. Private vendors of mental-health services to the prison system come and go. A legal agreement is needed to assure consistency on the adequate number of secure treatment beds, suicide prevention training, timely cell checks by prison staffers, proper cell design, and other preventive methods.
For added protection, the Legislature should act favorably on a bill that would create a permanent correction advisory board. The prison system’s persistent suicide problem and the fact that it took a lawsuit to address it are evidence of the need for an independent board to monitor the correction department’s budget, report on the condition of prison buildings and - above all - evaluate the medical care of inmates.