Prisoner advocates seek overhaul of inmate mental health treatment


June 28, 2021
CommonWealth Magazine
By Shira Schoenberg

Bill would require jails to send prisoners to health care facilities 

SEVEN MONTHS AFTER the Department of Justice issued a scathing report about the treatment of inmates with mental illness in Massachusetts prisons, advocates for prisoners and people with mental illness are urging the Legislature to overhaul the way mental health treatment is provided to incarcerated people. 

“No one with a behavioral health condition should be treated the way these individuals are being treated right now,” said Monica Luke, chair of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Massachusetts advocacy committee. 

A bill sponsored by Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, and Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley, a Boston Democrat, which had a hearing Monday before the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use, and Recovery, would institute changes at both state prisons and county jails and would require that many prisoners in crisis be moved out of jails into health care facilities. Eldridge said he filed the bill as a direct result of the Department of Justice report. 

Laura Wagner, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Mass Action Network and a supporter of the bill, emphasized that a lot of training is required to become a mental health clinician. “The idea somehow that all changes and a person with a high school diploma, a Department of Correction correctional officer is somehow now responsible for providing care, assessing the seriousness of a situation, and deciding the best interventions — it violates any ethics in any profession,” Wagner said in an interview. The Department of Justice report, which was released in November 2020 after a two-year investigation, found that that the state Department of Correction was violating its constitutional obligations by failing to provide adequate mental health services to prisoners. The report detailed horrific stories of prisoners seriously harming themselves while correctional officers failed to intervene and even egged them on. The report found that rather than providing treatment, prisons kept suicidal prisoners in restrictive conditions similar to solitary confinement where they had limited access to books, personal items, or recreation. Many prisoners harmed themselves while on “mental health watch.” 

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