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More money for prison-run treatment center in wake of troubling reports about facility

Governor Baker.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

A prison-run center for men ordered by a judge to undergo addiction treatment would receive an additional $3 million for medication and new staff, including substance use counselors, under Governor Charlie Baker’s proposed state budget.

The Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center in Plymouth would receive a total of $13 million under Baker’s budget, which was released Wednesday.

The proposed 30 percent budget increase follows a Globe report last month about the facility, a secure, locked center run by the Department of Correction that has been criticized by former patients and civil rights advocates who question the practice of placing those struggling with addiction in a prison-like setting.


The new funding, which requires legislative approval, would pay for 15 additional staff members and pay for patients to receive Vivitrol, a shot that blocks the effect of opioids, before they leave the treatment center.

Currently, patients at the center receive no Vivitrol and little medication to treat their addiction and say they are given little time with counselors, who are charged with treating them during their incarceration and connecting them with programs when they leave.

“The additional funding proposed in our budget for MASAC in Plymouth will allow the Commonwealth to take another important step in the right direction by hiring additional substance abuse counselors and providing a more robust set of treatment services, both while someone is civilly committed and after they are discharged,” said Daniel Bennett, the state’s secretary of public safety and security.

Department of Correction officials, however, said they will continue to exclude the medications — buprenorphine and methadone — that other addiction-treatment programs routinely offer to ease withdrawal pains and help patients on the path to recovery. Officials said they are opposed to opioids that can be diverted for illicit use.

“Bringing opiates into a Department of Correction facility and giving patients opiates is not something we plan to do,” Bennett said.


Dr. Jeffrey Baxter, chief medical officer of Spectrum Health Systems, the state’s largest addiction-treatment provider, said that buprenorphine and methadone are standard treatments for opioid addiction, and the medications are provided in many correctional settings. Without opioid medications, some patients undergoing withdrawal become extremely ill, he said.

“It’s not okay for them to say ‘Because we’re the Department of Correction we can’t use these medications,’ ” said Baxter, a former consultant in correctional health. All prisons and jails in Rhode Island, the Hampden County House of Correction in Western Massachusetts, and Rikers Island in New York City are among the correctional facilities that provide the medications to inmates, he said.

Those prisons and jails, as well as treatment facilities in the community, have found ways to manage the risk that the drugs will be used illicitly, Baxter said.

The budget increase would also pay for “navigators,” people with a clinical background who would be responsible for finding an after-care program for patients leaving the facility and following up with them to make sure they are receiving proper treatment. The navigators would allow substance use counselors to spend more time with patients.

Former patients told the Globe they had to wait days, if not weeks, before meeting with counselors, sessions that were often brief and perfunctory.

“That won’t be happening anymore,” Bennett said.

The Globe reported on the Plymouth center after a 29-year-old patient killed himself within three days of his commitment to the facility. Patients are committed under a state law known as Section 35, which allows a judge to compel treatment for anyone with an addiction whom family, police, or other law enforcement deem a danger to themselves or others.


The Plymouth facility is one of five treatment centers for Section 35 patients, but the only one located at a prison, and the only one without buprenorphine or methadone.

Bennett said prison officials have brought in a safety consultant to review conditions at the center and make recommendations to help prevent suicides.

The new funding would also finance upgrades to the facility, including a multi-purpose room for patients, a weight room, and more bathrooms. Modular buildings would be constructed to add more space for classrooms and group therapy sessions.

There are no plans to provide more training for correction officers, who oversee the treatment center. Several patients at the facility described verbal and even physical abuse by correction officers, which prison officials denied.

Bennett said correction officers already receive annual training on interacting with patients suffering from addiction and mental health disorders.

“We felt the best use of resources was to bring in more counseling and navigators,” Bennett said.

Advocates for patients who report problems said the budget increase would not fix the facility’s underlying problems.

“The only way to reform [the center] would be to take it away from the Department of Correction,” said James Pingeon, a staff attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services . “Any efforts to improve it are a good thing, however, it will never work. They will never be able to make this an effective treatment facility as long as it’s run like a prison, and there is no way around that hard fact.”


State law says that civilly committed women can be treated for addiction only at facilities licensed by the mental health or public health departments. That provision does not apply to men, and the Plymouth program isn’t a licensed addiction treatment provider.

The state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services had at one time proposed a feasibility study on taking over the Plymouth facility from the Department of Correction. But spokeswoman Sharon Torgerson said Wednesday the office is “pleased with the continued improvements” at the Plymouth program and “continues to monitor the progress.”

Meanwhile, the state Legislature is considering a bill that would bar the state from committing people to addiction treatment programs located within a jail or prison.

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com.