Do civil commitments make sense in a pandemic?

Hampden County Sheriff Cocchi defends his program

IT’S HAMPDEN COUNTY Sheriff Nick Cocchi versus Prisoners’ Legal Services, round two, this time with a global pandemic thrown in.

The sheriff and the legal services group have long been battling in court and in public over the practice of confining men who are civilly committed for substance abuse in a correctional facility while they get treatment. Civil commitments are a way to confine someone involuntarily because they pose a danger to themselves or others due to addiction. The advocates say a correctional facility is the wrong place to treat people for an illness, while Cocchi says he has the resources to offer effective treatment where other options don’t exist. Now, that practice is again coming into question during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prisoners’ Legal Services last week filed a class action lawsuit with the Supreme Judicial Court seeking to release some sentenced prisoners and all prisoners who are civilly committed due to the pandemic. (The case is separate from another SJC case, which has resulted in the release of around 600 prisoners who are awaiting trial or are incarcerated on probation or parole violations, due to the coronavirus.)

There are two correctional facilities that house civilly committed men – MASAC in Plymouth, which is run by the state Department of Correction, and Cocchi’s facility at the Hampden County Correctional Center. Prisoners’ Legal Services filed a lawsuit in early 2019, which is still pending, to move all these men to treatment facilities run by public health agencies instead. (A separate lawsuit resulted in legislation that banned the practice for women in 2016.)

The latest lawsuit argues that conditions at MASAC are dirty and dangerous and create a great risk of virus transmission for the men housed there. And due to COVID-19, the state has suspended the very treatment that justifies keeping the men confined. According to the lawsuit, MASAC cancelled classes and suspended group treatment during the pandemic, while keeping the men in lockdown.

The lawsuit doesn’t mention Cocchi’s program, but if the suit is successful, it would require Cocchi to release the men from his program as well.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Cocchi fought back in a lengthy statement issued Thursday. Cocchi said PLS is “misguided” and called their assertions “insulting” to his department. Cocchi said his facility has had no cases of COVID-19 among either his civilly committed or his incarcerated population. Staff are medically screened before each shift. Section 35 clients are given masks to wear at all times except while eating, and eating is done in shifts. Housing units are sanitized daily. The men have unlimited access to hygiene products and medical services. Cocchi said outside vendors and volunteers are no longer allowed in, but staff are continuing to provide addiction treatment services.

At a press conference outside the gates of his Ludlow facility, Cocchi and Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni said the widespread release of people who have substance abuse problems without aftercare planning is a recipe for a public health disaster. Cocchi told WBUR that his institution – perhaps unlike MASAC – is continuing operations. “They’re not just locked up in a room here, told to go cold turkey,” Cocchi said.