Police and correction officers whose jobs require dealing with violent and unpredictable people often deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the use of force. But not in the case of the 2009 death of Joshua Messier, who died at the hands of guards at Bridgewater State Hospital. Minimally, this case cries out for a manslaughter investigation.
Globe reporter Michael Rezendes has reported extensively on the events leading up to the death of the 23-year-old psychotic patient who punched a guard and paid with his life. Messier’s autopsy revealed injuries consistent with a beating, including bleeding of the brain and blunt force injuries to the neck and torso. His heart stopped during efforts by guards to strap him down. A medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, but later pulled back from her findings, according to a statement by Plymouth district attorney Timothy J. Cruz. None of the guards have been charged or even punished.
Messier’s death could have been avoided with even minimal training and understanding of psychotic behavior. That’s not just easy to say. It’s fairly easy to do. When I worked as a mental health worker at McLean Hospital during the 1970s, I participated in dozens of restraints without once causing serious injury to a patient. And I never witnessed or even heard of the potentially deadly “suitcasing’’ technique used on Messier by two guards who forced his chest into his knees as he sat in handcuffs and leg irons on a bed — all captured on videotape.
No one would mistake the prestigious McLean Hospital for Bridgewater. The psychiatric hospital in Belmont was known as a place where the well-off could decompress or deal with depression. But Bowditch Hall, which served back then as McLean’s all-male maximum security ward, was an outlier. Some of the patients had committed gruesome murders or assaults. Others were suicidal. The overnight shift was usually quiet and the patients cooperative. Occasionally, however, one of them assaulted a staffer or fellow patient. They couldn’t help it. They were sick.
McLean’s orientation period included a couple of hours of restraint training. This wasn’t a combat class. We were taught to recognize signs of psychological agitation and strategies to calm the patient before the situation escalated into violence. It wasn’t foolproof. In the event of an assault, the plan was to gain control of the patient using every available hand. The more workers involved in the restraint, the safer and softer the landing.
The procedure was straightforward. Four or five workers rushed the patient, pinned his arms and dragged him to the floor. Once the patient was prone, the next step was to pull his arms behind his back, then raise and cross his legs. After that, it was mostly a question of lifting the horizontal patient — careful to support the shoulders and knees — and remove him to a locked “quiet room’’ that contained just a thin mattress. If a nurse determined that the patient might hurt himself while waiting to calm down, we would place padded leather cuffs around his wrists and ankles and secure him to a bed frame. The use of “four-point’’ restraints required a doctor’s order. Nursing staff monitored the patient and loosened the cuffs on a regular schedule.
Seven guards were around Messier when he died. Seven is a luxury. No one should have been scratched during the restraint, never mind killed. The surveillance video and the guard’s depositions indicated that Messier became calm and cooperative after he was restrained and before he was “suitcased’’ and strapped to the bed. That sounded familiar. At McLean, patients who had lashed out moments earlier often calmed down immediately after being restrained on the ground. They hated to be out of control and seemed relieved when it was over.
The Bridgewater guards said they received little, if any, training by the Department of Correction in understanding the behavior of mentally ill people. That boggles the mind in a facility that specializes in housing convicted inmates with severe mental illness as well as individuals who are being held for observation before a court determines the next step.
Everything about the Messier case is a disgrace. The quality of training by the DOC. The lack of judgment by the guards who sat by while Messier died. The lack of action by DA Cruz who let the matter die without presenting evidence to a grand jury.
The Messier death is not one of those gray situations that arise in law enforcement. Messier hit a guard, requiring him to be brought under control. Not beaten. Not “suitcased.’’ Not killed.
This has all the earmarks of crime. And it needs to be investigated as such.Lawrence Harmon can be reached at email@example.com.