A 31-year-old man named Jonathan stood up before a crowd in a State House lounge Wednesday and spoke about a horrific experience. In April, he said, his family abruptly decided that he needed treatment for his drinking. So they took advantage of a state law called Section 35 to have him civilly committed — ordered into treatment by a judge.
Soon he was shackled in a police van and taken to the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center, or MASAC, a Plymouth treatment program run by the state Department of Correction.
It was surrounded by tall fences topped with razor wire. Jonathan said he’d never been to prison, but this sure looked like one, and he hadn’t committed a crime. He was forbidden to leave for weeks.
This happens only in Massachusetts, to about 3,000 men a year. While most states have laws allowing civil commitment for addiction treatment, only Massachusetts turns the majority of civilly committed patients over to the care of the Department of Correction. Five years ago, the state outlawed jailing women for addiction treatment, but still allows it for men.
Jonathan, who asked that his last name be withheld, spoke to a room packed with advocates, legislative staffers, and a few legislators, at a briefing intended to promote two bills that would effectively put an end to MASAC.
The bills would require that people who are civilly committed for addiction treatment receive care at programs licensed by state public health or mental health authorities. The briefing was sponsored by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, which recently sued the state, saying that sending civilly committed men to a correctional facility constitutes gender discrimination, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, and violates the constitutional right to due process.
At MASAC, Jonathan said, he was kept locked inside most of the time, denied access to papers to file for an extension to his taxes, and was even refused the parenting books that his pregnant wife sent him. (A Department of Correction spokesman said inmates are allowed to send and receive mail, and can have up to 10 books or periodicals, but they must come directly from the publisher.)
Jonathan called the atmosphere “toxic.”
“MASAC put me in a darker place,” he said.
Unlike Jonathan, 37-year-old Michael Perry has been to jail, he told the gathering. And he can attest that MASAC is definitely a prison, compete with solitary confinement, he said. “It feels like punishment and I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
In prison, Perry said, you have to keep up a facade of toughness. But to recover from addiction, “you need to be vulnerable and express yourself.”
“It’s the wrong place for recovery,” he said.
Robin Wallace of West Barnstable blames MASAC for the suicide of her 34-year-old son. She told the group that when her son was sent to MASAC, he tried to escape. Chased down by dogs, he was placed in solitary confinement while withdrawing painfully from methadone. After that, he told his mother he felt changed, “not the same person.” A year later he killed himself.
Michael Botticelli, executive director of Boston Medical Center’s Grayken Center for Addiction, also spoke at the event. Studies are unclear on the effectiveness of involuntary treatment, he said: It might help in very limited circumstances, but standard criteria should be applied. But it’s clear that incarcerating people for addiction “is ineffective, it’s inhumane, it’s unjust, and quite honestly it cost taxpayers a tremendous amount of money,” Botticelli said.
Asked to comment after Wednesday’s briefing, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction said privacy rules prevent him from discussing any individual’s case.
A legislative commission is studying the effectiveness of involuntary commitment for addiction and plans to issue its report this week.