Feds and Massachusetts Department of Correction reach agreement on mental health care for inmates

After nearly two years of negotiation, the Massachusetts US Attorney has reached an agreement with the state Department of Correction regarding the treatment of prisoners battling mental illness.

the agreement requests the following changes to DOC facilities:

  • improvement of mental health care and training of prison staff
  • creation of a new “intensive stabilization unit” for inmates experiencing mental health crises who do not qualify for hospitalization
  • increased access to care and more documentation related to the treatment of people with acute mental illnesses who have been placed in what is called a “mental health watch
  • the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee compliance with the agreement

Massachusetts US Attorney Rachael Rollins said in a statement Tuesday that the settlement was the result of “hard work and collaboration.” Prosecutors have an obligation, she said, to ensure that if someone is jailed, they “receive constitutional treatment and adequate mental and physical health care.”

“Our investigation found unconstitutional conditions and circumstances in which incarcerated individuals in mental health crises harmed themselves to the point of suicide,” Rollins said in the statement. “We must provide better mental health treatment in our prison facilities. Statistics show that far too many of the incarcerated population suffer from major mental health and substance use disorders, among other serious things.”

In 2018, federal officials began investigating the DOC’s mental health surveillance policies and treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness. In November 2020, the Department of Justice issued its conclusionswhich included that DOC violated the constitutional rights of prisoners in mental health crisis, failed to provide adequate mental health care, and used extended mental health surveillance in restrictive housing conditions.

“This agreement ensures increased supervision, increased out-of-cell contact with mental health staff, and intensive mental health care in a new treatment-focused housing unit when needed,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke. of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. “These reforms will help ensure that people receive the services they need when they are in crisis.”

The agreement resolves the federal claim that the DOC engaged in a pattern or practice that violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Under the agreement, the DOC does not admit any wrongdoing.

“The Department has been diligent, transparent, and cooperative with DOJ in advancing our shared goal of improving mental health care for those experiencing a mental health crisis,” said DOC Commissioner Carol Mici. in a sentence. “We remain deeply committed to the health and well-being of everyone in our care, while ensuring the protection of their physical safety and civil rights.”

Rollins said his office will work closely with the DOC to correct any issues. Meanwhile, Dr. Reena Kapoor will serve as an independent monitor required to provide public reports on compliance.

Kapoor, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School, previously oversaw settlement agreements with prisons in Illinois, Louisiana and Connecticut.

Prisoners’ rights advocates say they are pleased with the agreement and hope it will result in lasting improvements in mental health treatment for those who are incarcerated.

“We’ve been waiting for a fairly extensive settlement in this investigation for some time and we really appreciate the consideration and thoroughness of it,” said Lizz Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts. “It’s clear why this has taken some time. It’s a positive development for sure. We’re definitely going to be watching closely to see what happens.”

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