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Making prisons more humane

Massachusetts needs to find a better way to care for people with mental illness who remain behind bars.

An inmate gets outdoor recreation time on the recreation deck in an individual caged unit in the Secure Treatment Program at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in 2016.Suzanne Kreiter

Too often when the prison doors clang shut, especially on those suffering from mental illness, hope and humanity go out the window.

A 2020 US Department of Justice report that found “reasonable cause” that the state Department of Correction “fails to provide constitutionally adequate supervision to prisoners in mental health crisis” simply confirmed what many advocates and lawmakers already knew.

So Massachusetts lawmakers took that report and made it a template for needed change within the state’s prison system — change that recognizes that inmates in the throes of a mental health crisis and who may be suicidal are no less worthy of humane treatment simply because they are incarcerated. Those legislators and the advocates who support them are determined that “mental health watch” not continue to be just another form of solitary confinement — punitive and traumatizing.


“Corrections looks at everything through a security perspective,” Michael Cox, executive director of Black & Pink Massachusetts told the Legislature’s Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery earlier this week. “They’re not equipped to deal with mental illness at a human level.”

Cox, who identified himself as “a formerly incarcerated person,” said prison systems then become “a breeding ground” where “mental illness is exacerbated.”

Lisa Newman-Polk, an attorney who previously worked as a social worker at the maximum security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, described mental health watch — where inmates are separated from the general population, deprived of books and other possessions, sometimes stripped and given only an anti-suicide smock — as “dehumanizing,” adding, “there was nothing therapeutic about it.”

Companion bills filed by Senator James B. Eldridge and Representative Brandy Fluker Oakley aim to remedy some of the most egregious practices unearthed by the DOJ investigation. A prisoner would be placed on mental health watch only if, in the judgment of a “qualified mental health professional,” that prisoner is at risk of “imminent and serious self-harm” as determined by an “in-person interview.”


If after 24 hours that prisoner remains at risk, the inmate “shall be transferred” to an in-patient psychiatric facility. Among the more distressing findings of the DOJ report was the length of time some inmates remained in the kind of solitary confinement that constitutes mental health watch. During the 13 months of the DOJ probe, 51 prisoners were on mental health watch for a consecutive month or longer, 16 for more than three consecutive months, and seven spent six consecutive months or more under those conditions.

The legislation also attempts to address the issue of correction officers who through neglect or actual verbal abuse of prisoners — both offenses noted in the Justice Department investigation — exacerbated the suffering of inmates under their watch. Rules to be drafted by the Department of Mental Health — not by DOC — would prohibit correctional officers found to have violated mental health protocols from future mental health watch duty.

Those new protocols would apply to all state and county correctional facilities.

The juncture of mental illness and the criminal justice system is as undeniable as it is persistent. DOC’s own 2020 report found 38 percent of male prisoners and 70 percent of females had open mental health cases; 31 percent of male prisoners and 67 percent of females had been diagnosed with serious mental illness.


Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian told the Globe last month that 69 percent of those currently jailed in his facilities have an open mental health case and 49 percent have a confirmed diagnosed mental illness. Koutoujian has been working with the CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, Dana Mauch, to develop a Middlesex County Restoration Center as an alternative to prison.

The findings of the Justice Department probe — and ultimately resolving those outstanding issues — remain the subject of behind-the-scenes negotiations between the Justice Department and the DOC. Federal officials retain as their most potent weapon against injustice the hammer of a court-ordered consent decree — although there have been no indications so far that they are inclined to use it here.

And that brings us back full circle to a legislative fix, this one aptly titled “An Act to ensure the constitutional rights and human dignity of prisoners on mental health watch.”

A state — even one as progressive as Massachusetts — is known by how it treats the most powerless among its citizens, those who have nowhere else to turn. The Justice Department report made clear how much work remains to be done on behalf of the state’s prisoners with mental illness. This proposed legislation begins that serious task.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.