Mass. DOC accused of conditions that led inmates to engage in 'self-harm'

The two-year investigation looked at mental health care of inmates and whether it led to self-harm or death

By Tanner Stening

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Department of Correction is accused of violating the Eighth Amendment following a two-year investigation into conditions in the prison system, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement.

Lelling’s office and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division conducted the review, finding that the state Department of Correction “fails to provide constitutionally adequate supervision to prisoners in mental health crisis; fails to provide adequate mental health care to prisoners in mental health crisis; and violates the constitutional rights of prisoners in mental health crisis by using prolonged mental health watch under restrictive housing conditions.”

“As a result of these failures and conditions, prisoners in mental health crisis have engaged in self-harm and have died or seriously injured themselves while on mental health watch," federal prosecutors said.

Federal authorities sent the Department of Correction a written notice of supporting facts for the alleged conditions, they said.

Officials are closing the portion of the investigation “related to restrictive housing and geriatric and palliative care,” they said.

Representatives from the Department of Correction were not immediately available for comment Tuesday. MassLive also reached out to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security for comment.

“Our investigation found cause to conclude that the Massachusetts Department of Corrections fails to properly supervise and accommodate prisoners suffering from serious mental health issues,” Lelling said, in a statement. “The conditions at ( Department of Correction) facilities show how systemic deficiencies in prison facilities can compound each other and amount to constitutional violations. MDOC has cooperated with our investigation from the beginning and we look forward to working with state prison authorities to implement reform measures.”

The joint investigation involved “review and analysis of documents, including policies and procedures, mental health records, incident reports, investigative reports, disciplinary reports and training materials,” authorities said.

Officials also toured the prison facilities and interviewed “administrative staff, security staff, mental health staff and hundreds of prisoners," they said.

Liz Matos, executive director of Prisoner Legal Services, said the DOJ’s results were not surprising.

“Access to mental health care is not only extremely limited inside jails and prisons; it is counter-therapeutic,” she said in a statement. “People facing a crisis are routinely placed on mental health watch, which is widely considered worse than solitary confinement.”

Matos said the findings, based on a pre-pandemic probe, don’t account for the treatment of prisoners since the start of the global public health crisis.

“Since COVID, PLS has noted the mental health of our clients decompensating due to the never-ending lockdowns, having limited family contact, lack of access to real programming and treatment, and the ever-present threat of coronavirus infection with no ability to prevent it," Matos said. “Our sense is that incidents of self-harm and suicidality have increased.”


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