The state Department of Correction agreed Tuesday to transfer 14 men committed for drug and alcohol addiction out of a treatment center for sex offenders, seeking to resolve allegations that the men were mistreated.
The agreement, reached with lawyers for 11 of the men, comes less than a week after a Suffolk Superior Court judge said he was troubled to learn that individuals with substance use disorders had been placed at the Massachusetts Treatment Center, a Bridgewater facility for sex offenders who are serving criminal sentences or have finished their sentences but are deemed too dangerous for release.
The men will be moved back to a minimum-security prison in Plymouth, where they had previously been held. Under the agreement, the state will no longer place men who have been civilly committed to receive substance abuse treatment at the Bridgewater facility.
“We’re very glad DOC is doing the right thing,” said Bonita Tenneriello, one of the lawyers for the men and a staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services, a nonprofit organization representing the rights of people incarcerated in Massachusetts correctional facilities. “Here were people who sought treatment, and instead they got prison with no treatment. I think the DOC realized it’s better for these men, and better for the community, to make sure they’re not released to the street with no treatment.”
Earlier this month, the men filed a civil complaint against the state, saying their detention in Bridgewater had been cruel and that they received little to no treatment for their addictions. The complaint asked the court to remove them from the center immediately.
Judge Anthony M. Campo agreed the men should be removed from Bridgewater and placed in a more therapeutic setting, and he urged state officials to come up with a plan for their reassignment. The agreement was reached after a flurry of phone conversations Monday between state officials and lawyers for Prisoners’ Legal Services.
Campo is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday to review the agreement, which calls for the men to be sent back to Plymouth by July 27. “Returns will take place only after internal DOC discussions regarding safety and security considerations,” the agreement states.
“The DOC is pleased that we were able to resolve the matter,” said Christopher Fallon, a department spokesman.
Campo will likely want confirmation that the men have been removed by the end of the month, Tenneriello said.
The men were initially sent to the minimum-security facility in Plymouth under a law known as Section 35, which allows the involuntary civil commitment of someone whose addiction to alcohol or drugs poses a serious risk of harm. They were later sent to the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater because they had walked off the prison grounds in Plymouth or had behaved violently, state officials said.
In court filings, state officials said some of the men continued to be disruptive at Bridgewater, breaking sprinkler heads, climbing the walls of the recreation yard, and threatening to kill workers.
Iraida Hernandez, who had her 26-year-old son committed in May in the hopes that his heroin addiction would be treated, said she was relieved he would not be at Bridgewater much longer.
“They’ve been suffering so much. Thank God,” she said. “I’m so grateful. [My son] said it’s been a nightmare being there. He wants to get out of there. He said he has never suffered like this.”
Tenneriello said the conditions at the treatment center were so bad that three men, including Hernandez’s son, tried to commit suicide.
They complained of small food portions, prepared by sex offenders who put foreign objects in their meals, including staples. The people with substance abuse problems, many of whom were previous victims of sexual abuse, were forced to wear orange jumpsuits and were harassed by sex offenders, who could yell at them from open windows overlooking the patients’ recreation yard.
The prisoners said that men who complained about the conditions were put in isolation, allowed out of their cells for just one hour a day.
The DOC argued that the men were housed separately from sex offenders and said the patients were receiving treatment from a full-time social worker plus group therapy.
Tenneriello said the advocacy group is seeking to have all men civilly committed under Section 35 removed from prison facilities and placed into a hospital or treatment center run by the state Department of Public Health. In January 2016, Governor Charlie Baker signed a law forbidding women committed under Section 35 from being sent to Framingham State Prison. The following month, the state opened a drug treatment unit for women at Taunton State Hospital.
There are about 245 men who are civilly committed for drug addictions at the Plymouth facility, which is meant to be more therapeutic but is still technically a prison, run by correction officers.
“We strongly believe that nobody seeking treatment for addiction should be incarcerated,” Tenneriello said.