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    Female addicts given an alternative to prison

    Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, center, faces reporters as Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker, left, and Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey, right, look on during a news conference, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, at the Statehouse in Boston. Baker signed a bill into law Monday officially ending the state's longstanding practice of sending women with alcohol or substance abuse problems but who have committed no crimes to the state prison for women in Framingham. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
    Steven Senne/AP
    Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders (center) faced reporters as Mass. Governor Charlie Baker (left) and Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey (right) looked on during a news conference at the Statehouse in Boston.

    TAUNTON — The Baker administration unveiled a new drug treatment unit for women at Taunton State Hospital on Thursday, marking a shift from what one official called “the Dark Ages” of sending female addicts to a state prison in Framingham for detox services.

    The Women’s Recovery from Addictions Program, or WRAP, will open 15 beds on Tuesday for women who are ordered by a judge under a law known as Section 35 to undergo treatment for drug or alcohol dependency. An additional 30 beds are scheduled to be available at the hospital this summer.

    For three decades, women committed under Section 35 have been sent to MCI-Framingham, the state prison for female inmates. Officials said Thursday that the new Taunton unit signals a shift from incarcerating addicts to offering them treatment in a secure medical setting.

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    “Addictions are a disease,” said Marylou Sudders, the state secretary for Health and Human Services, during a news conference at the hospital.

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    “They are chronically relapsing illnesses, and we need to ensure that we treat individuals with the dignity and respect and access to treatment that they need.”

    It took three months to complete preparations for the WRAP project at a cost of $922,000, Sudders’ office said in a statement.

    The initiative stems from a landmark bill that Governor Charlie Baker signed last month to ensure that women who are civilly committed for treatment receive care in a therapeutic setting instead of a prison, the statement said.

    “Since 1987, the Commonwealth has been saying that they were going to stop the practice of civilly committing women to MCI-Framingham,” Sudders said, adding that addicts who are serving prison terms there can receive “tremendously good” treatment.

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    However, she said, women who are civilly committed under Section 35 “do not have access to those treatment services. You are literally held in the infirmary and detoxed. . . . This is about really ending a historic discrimination around not providing treatment to women who need that treatment.”

    Under Section 35, family members, doctors, police officers, or court officials can ask a judge to commit someone if their addiction threatens the safety of themselves or others. Patients can be committed for up to 90 days.

    Thousands of petitions come before the courts each year, and judges can send addicts to a licensed treatment facility or, if none is available, separate units at state prisons for men and women in Bridgewater and Framingham, respectively.

    Other options include the Women’s Addiction Treatment Center in New Bedford and the Men’s Addiction Treatment Center in Brockton, according to the Health and Human Services website.

    The opening of the Taunton unit comes amid an opioid overdose crisis that state officials say claims four lives every day in Massachusetts.

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    Sudders chaired the Opioid Working Group that Baker commissioned to address the epidemic, and the panel made a series of recommendations last spring, including changes to the civil commitment process, her office said.

    The health secretary said she and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito toured the Taunton unit in August and decided it would be the site for a state-run treatment program for women.

    Polito also attended Thursday’s event and said Baker’s administration has set aside $13 million in its proposed budget for fiscal 2017 for the 45 beds in Taunton.

    “This is a way that we can continue to show that Massachusetts wants to reduce the stigma associated with addiction,” Polito said.

    Women in the WRAP program will receive therapy and appropriate medications, as well as a discharge plan for continuing their treatment and recovery in the community, officials said.

    State Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat who attended the press conference, said authorities in the state judicial branch helped bring the program to fruition, because they saw that “what was going on in the Commonwealth relative to incarceration and equity relative to gender was wrong, and we needed to change that system.”

    Joan Mikula, the state’s mental health commissioner, also attended Thursday and said newly hired staffers for the WRAP program are ready to help the first group of patients who will be admitted Tuesday.

    “We will work hard with them to heal fractured relationships and to put their lives back together,” she said.

    Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.