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Report: Massachusetts Prisons Continue to Fail on Mental Health Care

Investigators cited hundreds of instances of MDOC employees failing to prevent suicide or other self-harm among prisoners who had been designated for mental health watch. The more grievous examples involved staff purposefully ignoring signs of potential harm, and the report highlighted a general absence of “clear and uniform training” inside the department.

The investigation was conducted by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts. In a statement released in November 17, 2020, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said, “The conditions at MDOC facilities show how systemic deficiencies in prison facilities can compound each other and amount to constitutional violations.”

Federal charges were not announced, but the MDOC was given seven weeks to implement required minimal changes to the department’s operations. These included improved training, reducing isolation of the prisoners to a minimum, keeping implements out of their possession that could be used for self-harm while on mental health watch, and employing enough clinicians that out-of-cell mental health assessments could be conducted daily.

A lawsuit could be brought against the state by the U.S. Attorney General if these requirements were not fulfilled. MDOC was working with the investigators to institute some of the necessary reforms, and at the time the report was released a spokesperson for the department, Jason Dobsom, said “significant progress” had already been made.

Both critics and Congressmen have disputed those claims. “As far as we can see through interviews with our clients, I don’t know that any significant changes have actually been implemented yet,” Elizabeth Matos of the watchdog group Prisoner’s Legal Services said.

Senator Cindy Friedman also expressed doubt that MDOC had made substantive reforms.

“And if you’re telling me that the thing you did was take a razor away from somebody who was seriously ill or suicidal, that’s what you think is providing people with good care. You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.

One of the reforms yet to be addressed was the hiring of additional mental health clinicians, an issue likely tied to a shortage of available funds. Governor Charlie Baker had asked for $730 million for MDOC’s 2020 budget but received less than $688 million. With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking even further havoc in 2021, Massachusetts is but another on the lengthy list of states with prison systems too bloated to benefit the public or those it incarcerates.  


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