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Yvonne Abraham

It’s time to fix Bridgewater State Hospital

Bridgewater State Hospital is not really a hospital, says Yvonne Abraham.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It is time, at last, for a reckoning.

Will Massachusetts continue to live with the moral stain that is Bridgewater State Hospital? Or will we finally end the decades of torture and misery inflicted there in our name?

Calling it a hospital would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. It’s actually a prison — a prison that houses the most seriously mentally ill men in the Commonwealth. There are psychiatric staff — about half as many as there should be — but the Department of Correction runs Bridgewater and sets the tone.

Leo Marino.Marino family

Correction officers don’t get into the business to improve the lives of those with mental illness. Most of them have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to schizophrenia or psychosis. Some of them try, but some don’t care. They treat the patients as inmates, feeding feelings of isolation and paranoia with solitary confinement, restraints, and punishments for acts over which those patients have little control.

Perhaps people think most of the 300 or so men held there are frightening figures who have committed serious crimes. But at least half of the men at Bridgewater have not been convicted of a crime. Most have acted out, sometimes violently, in the throes of their disease.

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Leo Marino shouldn’t have been there. The 43-year-old was gravely ill and suicidal. He was sent to Bridgewater after attacking his girlfriend and found incompetent to stand trial. In March, he spent more than 250 hours in isolation. Even though he was supposed to be under constant observation, he killed himself earlier this month.

Joshua Messier shouldn’t have been there. He was sent to Bridgewater after assaulting workers at a mental health facility. He died in 2009 , when prison guards responded to his schizophrenic attack by putting him in restraints, doing nothing to help him in his distress.

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Nobody should be there. This isn’t just about the deaths — the ones that grab the headlines and make us sit up and take notice, ever so fleetingly, of conditions at Bridgewater. This is also about the lives of abject misery that remain. And what misery it is. Talk to the loved ones of patients and you’ll see.

“He was in intensive care for three days and I never knew,” said the mother of a man who suffered a seizure and a serious head injury in seclusion in 2013.

They will tell you how hard it can be to get information, how erratic and chaotic visiting hours can be. Advocates will tell you how grim and barren the facility is, with patients who are bored, sleepy, desperate, drifting through their days in a building entirely unsuitable for real treatment. Razing it to the ground would make it only marginally less useful.

Massachusetts trails the nation here. No other state besides Iowa houses mentally ill men in a correction facility.

“When Mississippi is doing a better job with this population than Massachusetts,” said attorney Roderick MacLeish, who has represented patients at Bridgewater for 30 years, “you know you’ve lost your moral compass.”

We’ve had plenty of damning reports and one reform package that came way too late in Governor Deval Patrick’s term, after the Globe detailed the deaths of three Bridgewater patients. The Legislature largely shelved the plan, citing Patrick’s timing and lack of funds.

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Why doesn’t the barbarism of this place hold our attention for long?

Enough. For the love of mercy, attention must be paid. Something must be done. And it’s on Governor Charlie Baker to do it. His people say his administration is working on a plan.

Great. It had better be big. It had better be something that puts correctional officers nowhere near mentally ill men. It had better mean a proper treatment facility. It had better be at least as good as Mississippi.

Joshua Messier’s mother will be watching, waiting to see whether her son died in vain.

“I need Josh’s life to mean something,” Lisa Brown said.

Anyone with a shred of decency should want the same.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com