Mentally ill inmates sue Bristol sheriff over solitary confinement
Three inmates with serious mental illness filed a lawsuit against officials at the Bristol County Jail Tuesday, alleging they were placed in solitary confinement for at least 22 hours a day while receiving little treatment for their conditions.
“It should be obvious to defendants and to any reasonable person that the conditions imposed [on the inmates] cause tremendous mental anguish, suffering and pain to such individuals,” asserts the lawsuit, filed against Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson and other jail officials in Plymouth Superior Court. “Defendants are deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of serious harm suffered by plaintiffs.”
The allegations are based on complaints by the inmates and interviews with dozens of former inmates at the Bristol County House of Correction and Jail in North Dartmouth and the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford.
After receiving repeated complaints about the facilities, lawyers from two advocacy groups, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts and the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, interviewed 100 inmates who either had mental health issues or had been put in solitary confinement, also known as segregation.
They also reviewed their medical records.
“We had been hearing horror stories for many years from prisoners in Bristol,” said Bonnie Tenneriello, a staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services.
The lawsuit accuses the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office of failing to assess inmates’ mental health history before placing them in segregation or providing effective treatment.
Hodgson sharply denied the allegations in the complaint and said the lawyers had been manipulated by the inmates.
“This lawsuit is riddled with inaccuracies, misconceptions, and out-and-out lies,” he said. “Surprise, surprise, we might have people in our facilities who are not telling the truth.”
Hodgson said state agencies and national accreditation organizations regularly visit the jails and review their policies and procedures toward inmates.
The jails have consistently been found to be in compliance with national standards, Hodgson said. Mental health services are provided by Correctional Psychiatric Services in Braintree, which has decades of experience treating inmates with mental illness.
“I’m going to rely on the experts when I’m deciding how policy is going to work here and how we need to improve our system,” Hodgson said. “I don’t go and ask inmates in a kind of polling situation whether or not they think they’re getting enough food or this or that and rely solely on what they say.”
Hodgson accused Prisoners’ Legal Services of using the inmates to further their “political agenda” of regulating solitary confinement more closely. The Legislature has passed a criminal justice bill that calls for more oversight of inmate segregation.
“Shame on Prisoners’ Legal Services for trying to use this tactic in such an underhanded way,” he said. “We’re going to fight [this lawsuit], and when the facts come out I think they’re going to be embarrassed that they tried this route.”
The lawsuit states that the suicide rate at Bristol County jails is twice as high as in other county jails in Massachusetts and three times higher than the national rate in jails. In 2016, there were four suicides at the Bristol County Jail, two of them by inmates who were held in segregation, according to the lawsuit.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting documented suicides at county jails, including those in Bristol, in a report published last May in the Globe.
Inmates are placed in segregation if jail officials believe they pose a security threat, need protection from other inmates, or are found guilty of a disciplinary infraction.
The inmates want a judge to prevent jail officials from placing inmates with serious mental illness in segregation, develop alternative disciplinary measures for mentally ill inmates, and evaluate inmates for mental health conditions when they arrive at the jail.
Prisoners can spend weeks or even years in segregation, inmates alleged.
The lawsuit was filed by two men and one woman who were placed in segregation despite well-documented mental illness.
Danyel Battle, 27, has a long history of bipolar disorder and depression and has been held at the jail since March 2016. He was placed in segregation for fighting and disobeying orders, impulsive behavior connected to his mental health problems, according to the lawsuit.
Megan Downey, 31, had been hospitalized repeatedly for depression and anxiety. She was sent to solitary for minor infractions, such as receiving a book from another inmate and refusing to share a cell with a woman who had fought with her, according to the suit.
Andy Welch, 43, who was abused as a boy, had a history of suicide attempts and diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder when he was sentenced to Bristol County Jail in November 2014.
“Nevertheless, he has repeatedly been housed in segregation for prolonged periods, where at times he has become delusional as his mental health deteriorates,” the lawsuit states.
Welch has been in segregation for nearly two years.
Medical professionals recommend that jails and prisons identify inmates with serious mental illness and avoid putting them in segregation. But medical records at the jail show there is often no clinical review of inmates before they are segregated, the lawsuit claims.
“When such a clinical review is documented in the records, it often appears to be cursory,” it read.