Lawsuit over civil commitments targets Hampden sheriff’s program
Suit says civilly committed men are treated like prisoners
A LAWSUIT TO end the practice of confining civilly committed men with substance use disorders in prisons has been expanded to directly target a substance use program at the Hampden County House of Correction.
Men held there are alleging publicly for the first time that the treatment they received at the Ludlow jail’s treatment facility was similar to being held there as an inmate.
“Nobody who is sectioned for substance use disorder should be incarcerated. They should be in a treatment setting,” said Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services, which filed the lawsuit.
A spokesman for Sherriff Nick Cocchi said the sheriff could not comment on the pending litigation. But Cocchi said in a statement that the department has been a leader in substance use disorder treatment for over 35 years, and he is proud of the evidence-based treatment that is provided to civilly committed men. “For the families in Western Massachusetts with a loved one at a dangerous point with their addiction, we are an option of last resort,” Cocchi said. “But with an average stay of more than 50 days, and a recommitment rate of less than 11 percent, there is proof that what we are doing is working.”
Prisoners’ Legal Services brought a lawsuit in 2019 seeking to end the practice for men. Its initial lawsuit detailed degrading and abusive conditions at MASAC. It did not specifically include Cocchi’s program, and Cocchi had argued that the Hampden program works and should not be eliminated solely because of problems at MASAC. At a legislative hearing in 2019 on a bill that would have ended the practice of civil commitments in correctional facilities, men who had been held in Cocchi’s facility testified that the program helped them get sober, and the conditions were far better than in a jail.
The state has since made changes to how it provides treatment at MASAC.
But a new filing by Prisoners’ Legal Services includes affidavits from three men –– all anonymous –– who allege that they were treated as if they were in a prison at the Hampden County facility.
One man wrote that he had been incarcerated in the Hampden County jail before being civilly committed there. “There is no real difference between how I am treated now and what it was like when I was here as an inmate,” he wrote. He said the correctional officers are the same ones who work in the jail. “Although most officers are professional, some are on a power trip and talk to me like I’m worthless or as if I had done some terrible crime to get here,” he wrote.
The man wrote that civilly committed men can get locked in their cells or put in handcuffs, just as in the jail. He said men can end up confined to their cells – with no programming for 24 hours –– for offenses like being argumentative, having a “bad attitude,” or leaving a cell without a mask. He said he has seen the jail’s “move team,” a group of officers in riot gear, come in to remove a man.A second man, who had been at both MASAC and Hampden County jail, said at the Hampden facility, he was strip-searched, like a prisoner, when arriving. He too described being locked in his cell as a punishment for “horseplay” and being allowed out only for 10– or 15–minute meals. While he is allowed phone calls, he said it costs $6 or $7. (Another man wrote that the men get 12 free phone calls per week, and Cocchi has said previously that phone calls are free.) He said the food is the same as in the jail.
A third man said he had to detox “cold turkey” without comfort medications, and although he was being treated with methadone on the outside, it took 17 days to get a prescription started in the treatment facility. “I have spent 16 years in prison, including three years in Hampden. The only difference between my time in jail and my time while committed is that we get more food and do not wear jumpsuits,” he wrote. He describes being kneed, punched, and having his ankle twisted by officers after the man threw a chair at a correction officer.