A judge has tentatively approved the settlement of a class action lawsuit aimed at improving the treatment of patients with mental illness at troubled Bridgewater State Hospital, including a drastic reduction in the use of physical restraints and solitary confinement.
The settlement — initially filed on behalf of three patients, including one who had been kept in solitary confinement for 6,400 hours during a single year — calls for a litany of improvements in patient safety at the facility and allows Norfolk Superior Court Justice Paul D. Wilson to oversee whether the state is meeting its commitments for up to four years.
“Today’s agreement will prevent the confinement of severely mentally ill patients to months of solitary confinement for trivial and illegal reasons,” said Roderick MacLeish Jr. of Clark Hunt Ahern & Embry, lead attorney for the patients. “However, we remain the only state in the country where these types of patients can be held indefinitely in a prison setting. It’s a moral disgrace that has to end.”
A spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley, who defended the state in the lawsuit, declined to comment.
The tentative agreement, which could be finalized after a hearing before Wilson in late February, marks the second time this month the state has settled with outside groups to avoid further legal action about alleged mistreatment of patients at Bridgewater, which, despite its name, is a medium-security prison for men with mental health problems who have had contact with the criminal justice system.
The settlement strictly limits to emergencies the use of solitary confinement and physical restraints to control unruly patients. The Globe has reported that at least three Bridgewater patients have died in recent years after allegedly improper use of physical restraint, including Joshua K. Messier, whose parents received a $3 million settlement from the state and private mental health company.
“If the protections in this settlement agreement had been in place in 2009, my son Josh would be alive today,” said Messier’s mother, Lisa Brown. “The best I can do to honor his memory is to support these important reforms for other patients.”
The Disability Law Center, a federally funded advocacy group, reached a separate agreement with state officials earlier this month that also calls for Bridgewater to continue reducing its use of seclusion and restraint, potentially dangerous tactics that other mental health facilities are moving away from. That settlement calls for the center to establish an office at Bridgewater that will monitor staff treatment of patients on a regular basis.
Peter Minich, one of the patients named in the class action lawsuit, had been sent to Bridgewater in January 2013 after he allegedly attacked the staff at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Boston. In just over a year, records show that Bridgewater staff kept Minich, who suffers from schizophrenia, in isolation for more than 6,400 hours. In addition, he was cuffed hand and foot to a bed for 800 hours.
Since MacLeish filed the lawsuit in March 2014, Bridgewater State Hospital has transferred all three of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit to the Worcester Recovery Center. In addition, the Patrick administration has proposed building a new facility designed for potentially violent mental health patients with no criminal record.
Under the agreement with MacLeish and Prisoners Legal Services, the Department of Correction pledges to make immediate improvements in patient care. Meanwhile, the Department of Mental Health has pledged to provide staff to immediately boost the quality of care at Bridgewater.
Scott Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.