Just like that.
For decades, Bridgewater State Hospital was a hellhole, the heinous treatment of mentally ill inmates there the subject of countless exposes and lawsuits. Yet, though this place was the moral shame of Massachusetts, nothing ever changed.
Until, quite suddenly, it did. In April, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration turned Bridgewater over to mental health specialists who treat inmates there with compassion instead of brutality. It moved most of the corrections officers out of the facility. It shut down the notorious Intensive Treatment Unit, where men were strapped down and held in isolation — a practice that allegedly killed Joshua Messier in 2009.
It’s only been a few months, but early signs are positive: The staff has cut seclusion of patients by 99 percent, and the practice of strapping them down by 98 percent. The facility now functions more like an actual hospital.
Who knew this could happen? Only everybody. But there was no political gain in ending the suffering at Bridgewater, so it didn’t happen.
Jim Pingeon knew. The attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services has been fighting for more humane conditions at Bridgewater for 30 years. The state always came up with cheap excuses for its inaction: that inmates here were more violent than those in states that took a less brutal approach; that they have higher rates of substance abuse; that laws here made it harder to subdue them.
“This puts the lie to all the excuses the Department of Correction made for years,” Pingeon said. “How can you deny it now?”
Roderick MacLeish knew. For more than three decades, he has been representing Bridgewater inmates, some of whom died under the supervision of cruel or indifferent corrections officers. His happiness at the recent reforms is tempered by the fact that they’ve come too late for so many.
“It makes you think about all the poor people who were there so many years, and who suffered in isolation,” he said. MacLeish has seen seismic change at Bridgewater before: In 1990, after media reports and lawsuits shone a light on practices there, Governor Michael Dukakis opened up a new mental health facility and many Bridgewater patients were moved there. It was defunded 10 years later, “and everything reverted to the way it was,” he said.
Too late in his term, governor Deval Patrick tried, too. He was under pressure after the deaths of three men at the facility, and relentless reporting by the Globe’s Michael Rezendes on Messier’s death and the cover-up that followed. The governor proposed legislation that would have poured money and more clinicians into the prison. In an appalling act of neglect, lawmakers gutted it. There’s no constituency for improving conditions for mentally ill inmates.
The Baker administration, bless it, has done it anyway — with a push from more lawsuits and continued media scrutiny.
State officials got the corrections officers on board by promising that none would lose their jobs in the overhaul. They chose expert administrators to take over from them. They avoided criticism for going soft on criminals by moving 40 convicted inmates to another facility. They persuaded legislators to up Bridgewater’s budget by $19 million.
Bridgewater’s transformation is fragile. Its funding could be cut in tighter times. And if a staffer or patient is harmed at the facility, there will be calls for harsher treatment.
But so far, Baker has made it look easy. He could make solving other problems in our backwards prison system look easy, too. He could reduce the use of costly solitary confinement, which destroys inmates’ futures. He could end the practice of imprisoning men who are not criminals for substance use disorders. Inmates across the system desperately need better mental health services.
But this is a good start. All along, advocates have been saying Bridgewater could be reformed, that if only our leaders could find the will, the way would be obvious.
It’s infuriating how right they were.
How much suffering could have been avoided, how many lives saved, if the state had only listened sooner?Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham