Massachusetts’ opiate addiction crisis, which has ravaged families and upended lives, has had another, less-noted consequence: Women who are committed by the courts for detoxification often face repercussions significantly different from those that men face. A portion of state law known as Section 35 allows judges to commit people involuntarily who are shown to be at risk of “substantial harm.” In practice, these are often people brought to the courts by doctors, parents, or desperate relatives. Men are typically sent to a facility on the campus of MCI-Bridgewater, where they receive comprehensive treatment under medical supervision. Some women are sent to a private treatment center in New Bedford. But if there’s no room at that center, women can be sent to a general prison instead.
A lawsuit filed this summer by the ACLU and the law firm WilmerHale seeks to end that practice, charging that it violates due process and discriminates based on disability. ACLU lawyers estimate that, over the past three years, about 540 women have been sent to MCI-Framingham, a medium-security women’s prison, without having committed a crime. In the early stages of withdrawal, they charge, women committed to MCI-Framingham don’t have access to medications that are typically used in medically monitored treatment. Instead, they’re given a bucket and over-the-counter drugs such as Tylenol and Tums. Once the detox process is over, these women are kept separate from the prison population, with little opportunity for exercise and no access to the prison’s library or education programs. The law allows for them to be committed for up to 90 days in these conditions, though records show that the average time spent is two weeks.
Massachusetts is the only state that undertakes this practice, which could have unintended consequences of its own: In addition to creating cruel conditions, it serves as a disincentive for people to seek treatment for their loved ones. Governor Deval Patrick has, in fact, spoken out against civil commitments to prison, and his staff says the recently passed state budget includes enough additional funding for treatment beds to meet the need. Still, the administration favors keeping the prison option open, as a safety valve that would prevent women in the throes of addiction from being let out on the streets.
But the state could find another solution, through private contracts that would preserve women’s rights and treat addiction as the medical condition that it is. Lawsuits can sometimes function as useful levers. However change comes about, this practice needs to end.