Substance use treatment changing at Plymouth prison
Guards withdrawn, treatment expanded for civil commitments
THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION is removing correctional officers and expanding treatment programming at the troubled prison facility in Plymouth used to treat men civilly committed for substance use.
The shift in approach follows a lawsuit alleging abusive treatment at the facility and a legislative committee recommending these men no longer be kept there.
“By transitioning to a care-based model rather than a correctional one, MASAC has undergone a comprehensive transformation,” said Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. “The transition reflects the facility’s core mission to provide treatment, and it significantly expands the therapeutic and programming options available to our patients during a safe, structured, medically-monitored detoxification.”
But advocates say the administration’s plan does not go far enough, and the state should instead abolish the practice of keeping civilly committed men in a prison-like setting.
Matos said Massachusetts is the only state to use prisons as secure treatment facilities for civilly committed men. Her group argues that the Department of Public Health should be in charge of any treatment facility, not the Department of Correction.
Rep. Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat who sponsored a bill to end civil commitments in correctional facilities, said a jail is a jail, regardless of improved conditions. “Suppose we were sending people with heart conditions to a program run by DOC, then they decided to not have prison guards run it but brought in doctors, you still wouldn’t want people with heart conditions treated in a prison,” Balser said. “This is an illness that the Baker administration refuses to acknowledge as an illness and treat as an illness.”
Civil commitment, often referred to as Section 35, is a process by which a family member, doctor, or police officer can petition a judge to have someone involuntarily confined because they pose a danger to themselves or others due to alcohol or drug addiction. Historically in Massachusetts, this confinement has taken place at a mix of public health facilities and prisons.
After a lawsuit led to legislation banning the practice of holding civilly committed women in correctional facilities, women are now held at centers run by the state departments of public health or mental health. But men continue to be held at either a public health-run addiction treatment center, a facility run by Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi at the Ludlow jail, or at MASAC, the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Use Center in Plymouth.
MASAC is run by the state Department of Correction. A lawsuit brought by Prisoners’ Legal Services in March 2019 seeking to end the practice of holding civilly committed men in correctional facilities describes filthy conditions and degrading treatment at MASAC. Men held there have testified before the Legislature about abusive practices. A bill pending before the Legislature would eliminate the practice of holding civilly committed men at correctional facilities. A majority of the Section 35 Commission, formed to make recommendations regarding civil commitments, voted to recommend ending the practice of keeping civilly committed men in criminal justice facilities.
Connie Peters, vice president for addiction services at the Association for Behavioral Healthcare, which represents community-based mental health providers, said the organization supports the changes at MASAC but believes they do not address the core problem. “Section 35 is a civil commitment, not a criminal commitment, and they don’t belong in a prison setting,” Peters said.
The new MASAC treatment model, outlined in a legislatively required report by the Department of Correction that was distributed to advocacy groups, began May 10. It moved MASAC to a treatment model using the same standards as facilities run by the Department of Mental Health.
The move is similar to a shift that took place at Bridgewater State Hospital, a state-run mental hospital for individuals in the criminal justice system that was also reformed in response to a lawsuit and allegations of abuse.
At MASAC, the administration plans to use correctional officers only for perimeter security, structure maintenance, and security for trips.
Inside, day to day operation of the facility will be overseen by Wellpath, the state’s contracted provider of medical services. Staff will be clinically trained and out of uniform. Residential service coordinators hired by Wellpath will patrol the units to provide safety and security functions, and will be trained in tactics like de-escalation of volatile behavior. Private vendors will provide food and housecleaning services.
According to the plan, Wellpath will provide round-the-clock nursing supervision and will add new programming. Mental health programming will be made available to inmates for up to 11 hours a day, and there will be programs on evenings and weekends. There will be art, music, social interactions, and physical wellness programming. In addition to therapy for mental health issues, programs will address things like life skills, stress reduction, discharge planning, and other aspects of wellness.
Men will be allowed to use methadone, a medication assisted treatment to get people off drugs, under the supervision of another medical contractor.
Wellpath will have two years in which to obtain accreditation as a residential opioid treatment facility.
Residents will have a Patient Bill of Rights, which includes things like the right to phone calls, uncensored mail, visitors, and access to the outdoors.The shift was funded by a $5.4 million line item in a fiscal 2020 supplemental budget that the Legislature passed in March. This includes $1.3 million for start-up costs, like training and technology; $2.6 million for salary and benefits and other ongoing costs for May and June; and $1.3 million for facility improvements, including air conditioning and recreation space.