Worse than jail: Addicts civilly committed say DOC abused them and failed to treat them
Iraida Hernandez was desperate to find help for her son, a developmentally disabled 26-year-old long addicted to heroin.
Regular treatment centers weren’t enough — he walked out almost as soon as he walked in. Finally, Hernandez told him she wanted him to enter a program that would forbid him from leaving.
He did not resist, and in late May stood beside his mother when she asked a judge to have him held under a law that allows the civil commitment of someone whose addiction to alcohol or drugs poses a serious risk of harm.
It was a decision Hernandez came to regret.
Her son is now one of 11 men — all civilly committed to receive substance abuse treatment — suing the state for placing them at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, where the state’s most dangerous sex offenders are held in custody.
They are calling on a Suffolk Superior Court judge to release them immediately, contending their treatment has been cruel and that correction officials have wrongly insisted on keeping them for the full 90 days allowed by the law, known as Section 35.
They are also receiving little to no treatment, their civil complaint alleges.
“I put my son in a program so he could get better, not so he could be physically abused,” Hernandez said. “It’s a jail. The worst jail there is.”
Despondent and afraid, Hernandez’s son cut a vein in his arm, according to a civil complaint. Correction officers allegedly doused him with pepper spray to stop him, had him stitched up at an outside hospital, then put him in isolation for several days.
The men’s detention at the Bridgewater treatment center has been “traumatizing,” said Bonita Tenneriello, a lawyer at Prisoners’ Legal Services, which filed the complaint on the men’s behalf on July 7.
“It’s humiliating,” she said. “It’s stigmatizing.”
The opioid crisis has led to a surge in petitions for civil commitments under Section 35. In the 2016 fiscal year, there were more than 10,000, up 22 percent from two years before, according to the Massachusetts Trial Court.
That increase has left the state overburdened, specialists say.
“Massachusetts families are desperate for solutions, but increased reliance on Section 35 is not the way to go,” said Leo Beletsky, associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University School of Law. Health and state officials need to find alternative ways to get immediate and intensive treatment for people coping with addiction, he said.
“There are serious logistical, financial, and other barriers to receiving on-demand treatment and related services in this state,” Beletsky said.
There are 14 men committed for drug addiction currently being held at the Bridgewater facility. Some were committed at the request of police or a probation officer, but most were ordered to enter treatment after their parents petitioned the courts for help, believing their adult children would be placed in a restrictive program that would keep them from leaving but would also treat their addictions.
The men are not named in the complaint.
Warrants are issued for men who leave the state’s treatment centers after they are committed under Section 35, but patients typically are not treated as fugitives since they are not in criminal custody.
Last spring, the DOC shut down its former addiction center — a separate facility in the prison campus in Bridgewater, and began moving patients to a minimum-security facility near Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth. The plan was to give men committed under Section 35 a more therapeutic environment away from prison grounds. The Bridgewater campus has come under scrutiny in recent years over the treatment of mentally ill patients at its state hospital.
A spokesman for the Department of Correction declined to comment, citing the agency’s policy not to discuss pending litigation publicly. But in a letter to Prisoners’ Legal Services, the commissioner of the Department of Correction, Thomas A. Turco III, said he has the authority to transfer patients committed under Section 35 to the Bridgewater prison campus.
He said patients were transferred to Bridgewater after they escaped from the Plymouth facility or assaulted staff or other patients.
“Even within the more secure . . . unit, many of the patients have continued to engage in disruptive and destructive behavior,” Turco wrote. “These civilly committed patients are most assuredly not being punished for their substance use disorders.”
Turco said patients in Bridgewater are monitored by medical providers, can go outside for recreation, have access to group therapy five days a week and to individual counselors, and are watched closely as they detox.
But Tenneriello said DOC mismanaged the transfer to Plymouth. Treatment measures were not in place and patients were confused and frustrated, causing some of them to walk away from the Plymouth grounds.
The Department of Correction sent officers armed with guns and dogs to round up the men and take them to Bridgewater, according to the complaint. Hernandez’s son said an officer held a gun to his head and threatened to shoot him.
Because DOC had closed its old treatment center, the men were placed at the Massachusetts Treatment Center, which houses sex offenders who are serving criminal sentences or have finished their sentences but remain committed because they were deemed too dangerous for release.
Tenneriello said the conditions there have been so terrible, three men have tried to commit suicide.
The complaint further alleges:
■ Patients are too close to sex offenders, who have access to windows that open on the yard where patients have recreation time. Patients said sex offenders have shouted insults and threatened to rape their relatives.
■ Food portions are too small and prepared by sex offenders who work in the prison kitchen. Patients have found staples in the meals, and some have been too nervous to eat the meager portions for fear of what might be in the food. Hernandez said her son weighed 140 pounds when he was sent to Bridgewater nearly 40 days ago. He now weighs 126 pounds.
■ Patients can have no visitors, except their attorneys. Their mail is read, and their calls are monitored.
■ They must wear orange prison jumpsuits and carry identification cards that describe them as “inmates.”
■ Patients who have harmed themselves or behaved in a disruptive way to protest their conditions have been sent to what is called the “Minimum Privilege Unit,” where they are strip-searched in front of sex offenders, housed next to them, and allowed no more than an hour a day outside their cells.
Marion Benoit said her son, who is 18, was held in isolation for eight days after officers accused him of breaking a water sprinkler in his cell.
“They’re being treated like cattle, like animals,” Benoit said. “There is no respect for these men.”
Medical providers contracted by the state are supposed to provide at least 20 hours of treatment a week, but the men said they have received nothing of the kind. Counselors have instead offered the patients word-search puzzles with themes like “Famous American Football Players” to pass the time, they say.