Treatment units for mentally ill inmates on hold

State cites budget crunch as talks to end suit fail

MCI-Framingham was the scene of a suicide in 2000 committed by a woman who was not on a watch despite prior attempts. MCI-Framingham was the scene of a suicide in 2000 committed by a woman who was not on a watch despite prior attempts. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / November 10, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

The Patrick administration has shelved plans to build special treatment units for hundreds of seriously mentally ill inmates, two years after advocates for prisoners alleged in a federal lawsuit that the state’s practice of keeping such inmates in solitary confinement 23 hours a day was inhumane and causing suicides.

Citing the state budget crisis, lawyers for top state prison officials said negotiations to settle the civil rights suit by the Disability Law Center against the Department of Correction out of court have ended. The center has asked a federal judge in Boston to schedule a trial for January 2011, while the state wants it to start a year later.

The collapse of negotiations, made public in court filings Friday, marks a startling reversal from where things stood a year ago. Last November, Harold W. Clarke, the correction commissioner appointed by Governor Deval Patrick, and Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, said they expected the suit would be resolved shortly with the announcement of plans to build maximum-security residential treatment units.

Inmates would be exposed to more types of therapy in such units, and advocates want the prisoners to have more time out of their cells.

“We’re hoping to be able to say, ‘We don’t have to go to court, we can avoid litigation,’ which I’m certain will serve all parties best,’’ Clarke said in a Globe report Nov. 16.

On Friday, however, lawyers for the prison system filed a document in US District Court that said, “Due to the fiscal crisis, the parties have discontinued formal settlement negotiations.’’ The state’s lawyers did not elaborate on the financial constraints.

The nonprofit Disability Law Center sued the state in March 2007, alleging that hundreds of mentally ill prisoners were kept in closet-size solitary confinement cells in response to unruly behavior. The conditions had led to self-mutilation, the swallowing of razor blades, and numerous suicides, said the center.

The suit, which resembled legal challenges that led to changes in other states, said Massachusetts ignored repeated calls from its mental health providers and consultants to provide high-security treatment units for violent, mentally disturbed inmates.

A Globe Spotlight Team series in December 2007 reported 15 suicides in the prisons from 2005 through 2007, most by those in solitary confinement with histories of mental illness or drug addiction. There had also been more than 3,200 suicide attempts and self-inflicted injuries in the prior decade, the Globe found.

Walker, of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, which helps represent the Disability Law Center in the suit, said yesterday that she was “deeply disappointed that we’re not going to be able to resolve this case short of trial.’’ She said she could not comment further because settlement talks were confidential.

In a brief statement, Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the prison system, said correction officials plan to “continue providing appropriate levels of service to segregation inmates with serious mental illness.’’ She declined to elaborate, citing the litigation.

There is nothing appropriate about the segregation of inmates with mental illness, according to Laurie Martinelli, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts, an advocacy group that supports the lawsuit.

She said keeping such prisoners in their cells 23 hours a day violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and that the state’s fiscal crisis was irrelevant.

“You can’t get around a constitutional violation by saying, ‘We don’t have money,’ ’’ she said.

Fred Cohen, a retired criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Albany and an expert on the treatment of the mentally ill in prisons, agreed, saying no federal court has ruled that finances trump an inmate’s constitutional rights. If the case goes to trial, however, plaintiffs would have to prove that the isolation of inmates violates their civil rights. In some states, Cohen said, politicians were glad for judges to order them to improve conditions for inmates; that way, judges, rather than the politicians, had to take the heat from the public for spending scarce tax dollars on convicted criminals.

“It’s not unheard of, and it’s especially popular during times of economic duress,’’ he said.

Several states, including Connecticut, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin have faced lawsuits in recent years that have been resolved by settlements or court orders requiring improvements in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.

Kevin M. Burke, Patrick’s public safety secretary, was quoted as saying in 2007 that it would cost “several million’’ dollars to fully fund high-security treatment units. A spokesman for Burke, whose office oversees the prison system, said yesterday that the secretary would not comment on the litigation. Patrick also declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

Prisoner rights groups as well as specialists on the treatment of inmates have repeatedly criticized the Massachusetts prison system for failing to address the needs of inmates with mental illnesses.

An independent study of the state prison system released in February 2007 found that the number of mentally ill inmates increased by nearly 1,000 between 2000 and 2005 but that the state was not responding adequately to the challenges they presented. There are about 11,000 inmates in the state system.

Lindsay M. Hayes, a national specialist in prison suicide prevention who wrote the report, said suicidal inmates were being punished instead of being helped. The study, commissioned by the department after an increase in prisoner suicides in 2005 and 2006 left the state’s rate nearly double the national rate over the prior decade, made 29 recommendations. They ranged from improving the suicide-prevention training of correction officers to increasing the frequency of observation of at-risk inmates.

Although prison officials immediately said they embraced all of the recommendations, the department never endorsed a blanket ban on the segregation of mentally ill inmates. Inmates in segregation are typically allowed out of their cells for an hour only to shower or to get exercise in a small caged space.

In April 2008, the state prison system took a modest step to improve treatment of mentally ill inmates when it opened a unit for such prisoners at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Shirley. The unit is called the Secure Treatment Program and it houses 14 prisoners, Wiffin said.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at