A follow-up to our feature about suicide attempts, self-harm, and COVID at the Bridgewater state prison
It’s the “repeated refrain” of people incarcerated at Old Colony Correctional Center (OCCC) in Bridgewater: “There just [isn’t] enough mental health care.”
So wrote Mass state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa in an email to me after she visited OCCC on June 3, a visit spurred by this reporter’s article detailing the disastrous year of suicide attempts, self-harm, and COVID at the institution.
Sabadosa spoke with Shawn Fisher, Miguel Lozada, Manny Sanabria, and William Soper—three out of four subjects in the aforementioned article—about the multitude of problems occurring at OCCC, in particular due to mental health issues. She was only able to speak to prisoners when there was “6 feet of space” between them and she was “behind Plexiglass.”
A day before the state rep’s visit, another suicide attempt had occurred at OCCC, this time an attempted hanging. The man was rushed to the hospital. Joseph Beatty had tried to take his life two months before by jumping off a tier at OCCC. Beatty’s niece, Jennifer Boretti, wrote in an email that neither she nor Joe’s mother, Marie, had been notified by the DOC when the incident happened.
According to Fisher, as of this writing, the prisoner who tried to hang himself is in the Intensive Stabilization and Observation Unit (ISOU). Fisher said he “saw him in a yellow johnny which is a sign that on suicide watch.”
Sabadosa said it was “disturbing” to hear that while “many of the clinicians and health care workers at the prison were good and were trying to help,” there was a sense that “the guards overruled their medical decisions.” According to a 2019 article in Prison Legal News about medical rights for the incarcerated, “carceral administrators, employees and healthcare staff often abuse the medical decision-making process with respect to prisoners and detainees.”
A June 8, 2021 article from the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative purports that prisons are increasingly “deadly” places to live. It states, “Correctional officers are supposed to act swiftly to prevent suicide and self-harm. Not only do officers routinely fail to recognize mental health warning signs, but they’ve been found allowing and even encouraging self-harm, a disturbing reality.”
Manny Sanabria said that, in the meeting with Sabadosa, he elaborated on how self-harm is a significant problem at Old Colony, and discussed “the cold and insufficient food,” the “physical and verbal abuse,” and the suspension of mental health services during the lockdown.
It troubled Sabadosa that mental health care was “so restricted during the pandemic.” As we reported, for a year, mental health services had been reduced to clinicians doing rounds in the morning asking if the men would like some puzzles. Sabadosa said the men repeated that complaint to her. She wrote, “It was also concerning that several of [the prisoners] talked about how they were supposed to be in units with greater mental health care access but were still not in those units, against the recommendations of their clinicians.”
Old Colony is one of several institutions that has been under fire since the former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, blasted the state’s Department of Correction (DOC) in its Department of Justice 2020 report for violating the eighth amendment. That amendment assures that punishments for crimes will not be “excessive, cruel, or unusual.” The report cited the Mass DOC for not providing adequate mental health care or adequate supervision to those in a mental health crisis. In other words, many Massachusetts prisoners, as of the 2020 report, were being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.
Will Soper told me that “Not much has changed since the [Dig] article except that officers had to complete a mental health training. “They locked the institution down for them to get the training,” he said. We asked the DOC to respond to this comment and elaborate on the training but did not hear back from them.
Soper felt that Rep. Sabadosa listened intently to the men’s concerns. His asks included a request for an “outside company who isn’t paid by the state to make sure that the DOC is held accountable” for mental health and other issues. For example, he said that for health reasons the prison needs to “update the ventilation system,” which is “outdated” and “isn’t running properly,” especially when the outside temperature soars.
In 2018, the Boston Globe reported that sweltering conditions created an intolerable situation at several Mass prisons and drew concern from state public health officials. OCCC was not mentioned at that time, but Soper contends, “We are cooking away here and no one seems to care.”
Miguel Lozada agreed with Soper that an “independent, oversight commission” is needed, and he went one step further. He told Sabadosa that this commission needs to tour the facilities at least once or twice yearly, “unannounced.” In addition, he advocated for “transparency” in whatever training the institutional employees receive to deal with mental illness diagnoses.
On June 4, Sabadosa also visited Bridgewater State Hospital, located on the same grounds as Old Colony. She wrote that “Much of the therapy and treatment at Bridgewater felt like it needed to be incorporated at OCCC.”
In its June 8 article on prisons as death-making institutions, Prison Policy pointed out the inadequate response to the Department of Justice investigation: “The DOC is piloting Fitbit-like bracelets for its population to track changes in vital signs related to mental health distress. Instead of rolling back harsh solitary confinement practices and improving how correctional officers respond to crises, the DOC is increasing surveillance and allowing another private company to profit off of prisons.”
Sabadosa urged Mass residents to look at two bills currently before state lawmakers that might be able to help assure better quality of mental health care behind bars.
One is H.1461, “An Act relative to ensuring quality mental health services in state correctional facilities” filed by Rep. Ruth Balser, which is now before the Judiciary Committee. It gives the commissioner of mental health supervision over mental health services in state prisons.
The second is H.2085, “An Act to improve mental health services in places of incarceration,” filed by Rep Balser and Rep. Marjorie Decker. This bill, referred to the committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery, is similar but also includes houses of correction.
“The only way for this to be fixed,” Soper said, “is to hold prison officials accountable for the people that died and got sick because of their negligence.”
This article was produced in partnership with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project. To help support more journalism like this donate to BINJ at givetobinj.org.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.