The Jailing of Jesse Harvey
A drug war activist turned to civil commitment for help — and found a civil liberties nightmare.
By Jordan Michael Smith
March 23, 2022
Jesse Harvey had one big idea left. Charismatic and outspoken, he was a graduate student of public policy at the University of Southern Maine and a prominent activist battling the drug war around New England. But after a multiyear stretch of abstinence, he had recently suffered a sequence of awful events: He relapsed with alcohol and drugs, got into a car accident, was arrested twice in two days, overdosed, entered a rehabilitation facility and then left early, and detoxed at a hospital.
Lying in a hospital bed in late 2019, he told his mother, Catherine Nash, that another stretch in a rehab center wouldn’t do the job. At just 27, he had already experienced the disillusioning cycle in and out of inadequate treatment facilities and hospitals that is familiar to the millions of Americans with substance use disorders. “Those places never work,” Catherine recalls him saying. He knew well that many patients quickly relapse after leaving standard treatment centers.
He told Catherine he wanted to enter civil commitment, a court-ordered form of institutionalization. Once Jesse agreed to be committed, he would be relinquishing his right to leave before a specified date. Catherine was relieved at his decision, desperate for anything to help her son, even if it meant he would be locked up. After a night in a motel and a pizza dinner, they drove a rental car through the snow to a courthouse in central Massachusetts.
The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department depicts Stonybrook as an ideal treatment center, promising “evidence-guided, trauma-informed, and family-focused detox and post-detox care.” It describes a therapeutic, nonpunitive environment. “The men civilly committed to [Stonybrook] are referred to as clients,” it says. They are issued T-shirts, khaki pants, and sweatshirts to wear and don’t share space with people who face criminal charges: “Civil commitments are housed separately, their intakes occur separately, and have all recreation separately.”
But Jesse soon discovered a very different reality. Like other individuals committed in Massachusetts, he was immediately slapped with handcuffs and shackles for transport to the treatment center, though he had volunteered to enter commitment and hadn’t been charged with a crime.
But Jesse wasn’t the only person who experienced commitment in Massachusetts as dehumanizing. A 2019 lawsuit filed by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, or PLSMA, against several state agencies alleges that people committed in the state were put in shackles and waist chains, subjected to strip searches, and even put in solitary confinement — all outside the criminal justice system. In 2021, the organization filed an amended complaint, adding four men held in Stonybrook. The suit is still pending.
The criminalization of commitment compounds its essential illiberalism. Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts who worked on the lawsuit, sees a clear violation of due process. “You can’t hold men in prison just because they have an addiction,” she said. “It’s disability discrimination, it reflects decades of misconceptions about addiction, it creates stigma.”