A young mental health patient at Bridgewater State Hospital died after prison guards untrained in mental health disorders placed him in restraints. A state medical examiner said the death of 23-year-old Joshua K. Messier in 2009 was a homicide. But none of the seven guards who were in his cell that night have been prosecuted or even punished, the Globe’s Michael Rezendes reported.
It happened on Governor Deval Patrick’s watch. But the governor’s first reflex was a familiar one — he declined to answer questions. Pressed again for response to Messier’s death, he said, “It’s horrible. It’s tragic.” But, stay tuned. He might have more to say about it.
Meanwhile, Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz is under fire for refusing to pursue criminal charges against the guards, or to present evidence to a grand jury. And Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democratic candidate for governor, is being criticized by rivals for her role in defending yet another state agency for alleged management deficienices.
Coakley is defending the state against a suit filed by Messier’s parents against nine guards, two nurses, and the Department of Correction. She is already defending the state Department of Children and Families from a lawsuit filed by a child welfare advocacy group.
Politics aside, Messier’s story is tragic in its own right. Like those children who are supposed to be protected by the state Department of Children and Families, he represents another vulnerable population — the mentally ill who end up in the state prison system. The young man, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. He died a month later. Surveillance video shows two guards pressing down hard on Messier’s back while he was seated on a bed with his hands cuffed behind him.
As reported by the Globe, the state medical examiner’s autopsy revealed blunt force injuries to nearly every part of Messier’s body. A 2011 report by the state’s Disabled Persons Protection Commission also found “sufficient evidence to conclude” that two guards were responsible for his death. Two internal Department of Correction investigations also faulted the guards.
The consequences? The guards were “retrained.” The training came too late, of course, for Messier. And who knows how thorough it was? According to a statement from the Department of Correction, “officer training was significantly enhanced”— as if those words alone settle the matter.
Messier’s death deserves more than political analysis through the prism of an election year. But it does deserve answers from political leaders, most notably the governor.
Patrick has a habit of viewing tragedies like this as anecdotal and not representative of any systemic problem. That was his first response to the case of Jeremiah Oliver, the five-year-old Fitchburg boy who went missing while under the supervision of the state Department of Children and Families and is now presumed dead. To growing demands for more accountability in that agency, he replied, “It’s kind of a customary thing in politics that when someone or something goes wrong people call for someone’s head on a platter.”
The governor prefers to dwell on successes, not mistakes. It’s fine for him to stand behind his appointees. But it’s Coakley who is left to defend them in court. With recent polls putting her far ahead of other Democrats in the primary race, Coakley’s opponents see opportunity in the demands of her job as the state’s top prosecutor.
Politically, it makes sense. But it’s Patrick, not the AG, who is ultimately responsible for state policy. The buck should stop with him, but historically, he ducks first, whatever the problem. And there are many problems — from inconvenient to deadly. The state’s health insurance website is in meltdown. State public health officials botched the licensing of medical marijuana dispensaries. Tens of thousands of criminal convictions were jeopardized after a state crime lab chemist tampered with evidence. Contaminated steroids from a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy killed 64 people across the country. From 2001 to 2010, more than 95 children whose cases were overseen by state social workers died directly or indirectly from abuse or neglect.
Now comes the report of Messier’s death and the state’s alleged culpability. To that, Patrick now has “some questions of my own.”
The Democrats who want to be governor, Coakley included, should demand answers — from the Democrat who is governor.Joan Vennochi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.