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After DOJ Finds Unconstitutional Conditions for Mentally Ill Prisoners in Solitary, Massachusetts Experiments with Monitoring Gadget

Six months after the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a highly critical report accusing the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (MADOC) of violating the constitutional rights of mentally ill prisoners by holding them in isolation too long, the agency has not made conditions any less stressful. Instead it signed a contract on May 5, 2021 for monitoring bracelets to keep tabs on their vital signs.

The device, called the Custody Project by manufacturer 4Sight, works like a Fitbit to track a prisoner’s heart rate and breathing, reporting the data in real time to MADOC. The agency is apparently the first in the U.S. to test a monitoring device specifically to prevent prisoners from self-harm. Left unaddressed is a big factor in the prisoner’s underlying stress—the experience of isolation.

As author and former prisoner James Kilgore warns, “We’re not going to deal with people’s mental health issues by simply putting some kind of tracking device on them, and trying to gather biometric data.”

In its November 2020 report, DOJ blasted MADOC for routinely confining prisoners on mental health watch in “restrictive housing,” where they are isolated for up to 22 hours a day. Being placed on “mental health watch” is supposed to include routine checks on the prisoner’s condition and monitoring his or her mental health needs. But MADOC security and medical staff neglected to ensure those minimal standards, DOJ investigators found.

Moreover, the harsh conditions inside restrictive housing units are drastically ill-suited to the care of prisoners with mental health issues, where medication was the only treatment, and any programming or counseling is non-existent.

“The lack of any significant treatment to these prisoners is one of the most shocking aspects of the DOJ report,” noted Prisoner’s Legal Services and state Restrictive Housing Oversight Committee (RHOC) member Bonnie Tenneriello. “There must be confidential psychiatric treatment—and just giving medication is not necessarily treatment.”

The result of a two-year investigation, the DOJ report also said that prisoners on mental health watch who were placed in restrictive housing stayed there much longer than MADOC policy limits, which is no more than four days.

Between July 1, 2018 and August 31, 2019, more than 100 of over 900 prisoners placed on mental health watch were held in restrictive housing for two weeks or more. In all ten of MADOC’s prisons, at least one confinement lasted 30 or more consecutive days. Nine of the ten saw a confinement that stretched more than 90 days. In five of the ten, some mentally ill prisoners were isolated for over 180 days—far “longer than necessary,” the report stated. The restrictive confinement can often “perpetuate the prisoner’s crisis or even escalate it, all while the prisoner decompensates and continues to engage in self-harm.”

“Thus,” the report concluded, “prisoners in crisis placed on (MADOC’s) mental health watch often face a harmful experience—not a therapeutic and positive one.”

The lack of proper supervision and a paucity of mental health care resulted in numerous cases of self­harm, serious injury, and even death. Half of the eight prisoners who committed suicide in MADOC facilities since 2018 were confined in restrictive housing units on mental health watch.

The DOJ’s investigation concluded that had MADOC, “provided these prisoners with adequate mental health care rather than subjecting them to restrictive housing, devoid of mental health treatment, these suicides may have been avoided.”

The problem was widespread. Of MADOC’s prisoner population, 24% suffered from mental illness. During the DOJ investigation, prisoners across the state engaged in incidents of self-harm 688 times.

The report also outlined several cases in which a prisoner’s constitutional rights were violated. One prisoner at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center who cut himself in 2019 lay with his blood pooling outside his cell for 45 minutes before guards responded.

In another case, a prisoner at Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI)-Shirley killed himself 12 days after being released from a nine-day mental health watch. His family told guards that he was planning on attempting suicide, but their warnings were ignored.

A second prisoner at MCI-Shirley killed himself in the Restrictive Housing Unit. The report said underlying conditions of homosexuality and incontinence due to prostate cancer—which were never addressed—drove him to suicide.

Activists add that these findings were determined from an investigation that concluded in 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In reality, they say, extended lockdowns, cancelled visitations, and suspended programming have worsened conditions, and instances of self-harm and suicide, as well as abusive use of isolation, are now on the rise.

At a January 2021 RHOC meeting, Tennerillo made several recommendations to correct these problems, including:

• holding guards accountable for mistreatment;

• mandating daily time out of a prisoner’s cell in restrictive housing;

• more training for guards in handling mentally ill prisoners; and

• public hearings concerning the mental health watch system.

DOJ gave the state until January 1, 2021, to come up with a remediation plan. But by the end of the month, the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice, Andrew Peck, said he and DOJ were still negotiating. The state’s new contract to test monitoring devices appears to be its only response so far. 




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