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Bridgewater State Hospital overhaul remains unfunded

Advocates raised fresh concerns about conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital (above) after a 43-year-old mentally ill man committed suicide there on April 8.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Two years ago, Governor Deval Patrick, under pressure following the deaths of three men at Bridgewater State Hospital, proposed an ambitious series of changes designed to end the harsh treatment of inmates at the medium-security prison and psychiatric facility.

But within weeks, the Legislature had largely scrapped the plan, setting aside just a sliver of the money requested.

Now, following the suicide of a 43-year-old mentally ill man at the hospital on April 8, advocates are questioning why lawmakers slashed the funding proposal and spurned Patrick’s broader plans to overhaul the way the state’s criminal justice system handles mentally ill inmates.


“It shouldn’t take a death for the public’s outrage over Bridgewater to exist,” said Roderick MacLeish Jr., an attorney who filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Bridgewater inmates in 2014. “This is a national disgrace what’s happening at this facility.”

Legislative leaders provided a series of reasons for not approving Patrick’s plans, including tough financial times, the timing of the governor’s request before the summer recess, and disagreement about how best to fix Bridgewater.

“It was not ready for action,” said Senator William N. Brownsberger, cochairman of the Judiciary Committee, which reviewed the legislation.

Patrick introduced the bill in July 2014, after a series of Globe reports detailed how three inmates who had been held in restraints at Bridgewater died between 2009 and 2013.

Three prison guards were fired for their role in the death of one of the inmates, Joshua K. Messier, and the state prison chief resigned after he was accused of slowing down an internal investigation into allegations that a guard had physically abused another Bridgewater patient.

Patrick’s bill would have set aside $10 million to hire 114 additional mental health clinicians at Bridgewater to “ensure patients committed there are getting the best possible care.”


But six weeks later, when the bill emerged from the House budget committee, it had been cut to $1.9 million.

Several months later, Patrick’s proposal to study the construction of a new facility where potentially violent patients could receive care died in the House. And his plan to move some Bridgewater patients to less-restrictive facilities was rejected by a legislative committee.

Representative Brian S. Dempsey, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was not available for an interview to explain why his committee cut Patrick’s funding plan, according to a spokesman.

A House budget official sent the Globe a timeline that showed that $10 million was eventually approved by the House in various bills that were passed in 2014 and 2015.

But state prison officials said that money was designed to help fund the entire state Department of Correction, not Bridgewater State Hospital specifically.

Prison records show the $1.9 million that was approved by the Legislature allowed the hospital to hire 19 additional employees, including 10 mental health clinicians and one senior psychiatrist.

After the addition of the staff, the Joint Commission, the national agency that accredits mental health facilities, decided not to downgrade Bridgewater’s status in September 2014, according to prison records.

Brownsberger said he was disappointed that lawmakers did not approve the full $10 million request. But he said the state was facing a major shortfall at the time.


“We were cutting budgets, not adding to budgets,” Brownsberger said.

Stephen M. Brewer , who was Senate budget chief in 2014, echoed Brownsberger. “It was probably the situation where government can’t be all things to all people,” he said.

Brownsberger, whose committee nixed Patrick’s plan to move some Bridgewater patients to less-restrictive facilities, said there was disagreement among judges and advocates about how to relocate the different kinds of inmates there, each of whom have their own set of legal rights.

Some Bridgewater inmates are serving criminal sentences, some have completed their sentences but have been ruled too dangerous to release, and some have only been charged with crimes and are being evaluated while they await trial.

“There really was no legal consensus” on the proposed reorganization, Brownsberger said.

Seth Gitell, a spokesman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo , blamed Patrick for introducing the bill a month before lawmakers were scheduled to begin their summer recess.

“As the legislative history indicates, Governor Patrick submitted the late-file bill in July 2014 as formal session was ending,” Gitell said in a statement. He added that the House committee that controlled the bill “did not receive any requests from the administration or anyone else advocating for the measure.”

Andrea J. Cabral, who was Patrick’s public safety secretary, rejected that assertion.

“The governor was very public at the time about what he was proposing, and why he was proposing it, and it was well known what the reasons were,” she said.


Officials in Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, who declined requests for interviews, have said they are working on a new plan to revamp Bridgewater, but have not released any details.

MacLeish said he worries that as attention and resources have shifted to the opioid crisis and the Department of Children and Families, lawmakers and officials are no longer focused on improving the treatment of mentally ill inmates.

“All the prior efforts we’ve made to get the issue addressed, and that we’ve been making for decades, fell on deaf ears,” he said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.