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$3 Million Settlement in Death of Mentally Ill Prisoner; Three Guards Indicted

A $3 million settlement was paid to the parents of a 23-year-old mental health patient killed by three guards at Bridgewater State Hospital who were attempting to strap him into four-point restraints on a small bed. The incident also resulted in the resignation of the state’s top prison official.

Only Massachusetts and one other state have their prison systems run their state mental health facility for criminal defendants. Virginia-based MHM Correctional Services (MHM) provides medical and mental health services to prisoners and pretrial detainees housed at Bridgewater, which is operated as a medium-security prison.

Joshua Messier had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was being held at Bridgewater when he died in 2009. Surveillance video showed seven guards involved in the fatal altercation. Two of the guards pressed hard on Messier’s back while he was seated on a bed with his hands cuffed behind him, causing his chest to fold toward his knees. This maneuver, known as “suitcasing,” can cause suffocation and is prohibited by prison rules.

State medical examiner Mindy J. Hull ruled Messier’s death a homicide, saying he died of a heart attack while being “restrained by correctional officers during agitated state.” [See: PLN, May 2014, p.53].

Aided by attorney Benjamin R. Novotny, Messier’s parents filed a civil rights action against prison officials and MHM. In February 2014, a $3 million settlement in their lawsuit was announced.

A second, unrelated suit was filed by the mother of 31-year-old Bridgewater patient Peter Minich with the aid of attorney Roderick MacLeish, Jr. The suit alleged that Minich, a pretrial detainee, spent 6,300 hours – 70% of the 14 months he was at Bridgewater – in isolation. During 815 of those hours, he was allegedly held in four-point restraints on a small bed.

Minich suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. He was sent to Bridgewater after allegedly assaulting staff at another mental health facility, but had never been convicted of a crime. The lawsuit claimed that Bridgewater guards had no training in how to handle the mentally ill. The suit was settled in April 2014, with the state agreeing to move Minich out of Bridgewater and develop a “behavioral modification plan” for him.

These and other incidents led then-Governor Deval Patrick to discipline six guards who were involved in Messier’s death. He formally reprimanded Corrections Commissioner Luis S. Spencer for failing to discipline them himself when an internal investigation cited three of the guards for misconduct. In July 2014, he asked for Spencer’s resignation and received it. [See: PLN, June 2015, p.63].

Spencer had also been criticized for failing to personally review and sign off on each use of restraints and seclusion at Bridgewater, as required by state law, and for “slowing down” an internal affairs investigation. The use of seclusion and restraints increased by 27% at Bridgewater following Messier’s death, while other mental health facilities were reducing their use of such measures.

Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral said her office had initiated new practices at Bridgewater that resulted in a reduction of over 90% in the use of restraints and over 60% in the use of seclusion.

In May 2015, Messier’s mother, Lisa Brown, who has long advocated for justice after her son died, called for an investigation into the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office, which had twice previously declined to file charges against the three guards directly involved in her son’s death. Brown’s attorney sent a letter to the state Attorney General’s office requesting an investigation into how Plymouth County DA Timothy Cruz had handled the case.

Cruz refused to file charges both in 2010 and after a second review in 2014. He said that investigators in his office had spoken with Dr. Hull, and alleged she stated that “in her opinion it was the conduct of Joshua Messier in fighting and maintaining the struggle against the guards that caused his extremely agitated state and ultimately his death.”

However, Dr. Hull denied making that statement, and said she did not say Messier was to blame for his death.

“It places blame where I wouldn’t place blame,” she stated, according to court transcripts. “The problem I have with the statement is the fact that it places blame on Joshua Messier, and I try – that’s not my role, and I maintain it’s not my role and those words are not my words.”

Bridgewater guards Derek Howard, John Raposo and Sgt. George Billadeau were indicted on April 30, 2015 on involuntary manslaughter and other charges for using excessive force that resulted in Messier’s death. An independent report released in May 2015 found their actions were “wanton and reckless,” and the indictments were handed down after a special prosecutor sent the case to a grand jury.

“While today’s charges are an important first step, there’s simply no moral basis to put innocent mentally ill men like my son Joshua into a correctional institution,” said Brown. “It was and always will be wrong. It’s imperative that the Massachusetts mental health care system be brought into the 21st century.”

Sources: www.bostonglobe.com, www.wickedlocal.com


 

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