“People call saying, “I just can’t bear it.” The number of psychiatric intakes; people hearing voices. “The walls are closing in on me; I can’t talk to my family; I’ve lost it.”
For Joseph Beatty, as for all of the men I heard from for this article, mental health services were drastically diminished at Old Colony Correctional Center (OCCC) in Bridgewater during the pandemic year.
On the afternoon of Feb. 24, 2021, instead of receiving treatment, Beatty was contemplating ending his life.
He was not in his cell on the residential treatment unit (RTU), nor was he talking idly in the dayroom or outside for recreation.
Beatty, who some called a haunted soul, was standing on the second tier of the RTU, approximately 15 feet above the ground. He was “out of place,” according to an incident report filed at OCCC.
Then, Beatty “suddenly shrugged his shoulders, took several large strides, grabbed the hand railing on the end of the tier and flipped himself over.”
Will Soper, who suffered from sexual, physical, and mental abuse before he came to the RTU, recounted, “At the time, I was by the kiosk machine where we put our canteen orders and I was talking to a couple of guys before I heard a scream.”
As Beatty fell, he landed on another prisoner. Yet, his head cracked open on the concrete and it bled profusely.
“I still can’t get rid of the sound of his head smashing off the floor,” Soper recalled.
Since April 3, 2020, Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner Carol Mici had enforced that “sheltering in place” because of COVID-19 meant total lockdown. Those incarcerated in state prisons had been permitted only 30 minutes outside for showers and phone calls.
But on Feb. 19, 2021, time outside cells had been increased to three hours a day. And guys who lived with Joe Beatty and had been classified with mental health issues—such as Will Soper, Manny Sanabria, Keven Blakemore, and Randy Velez—had been relieved to get some space. The men in this article all wanted their names used except for one who is no longer at OCCC. In emails, letters, and phone calls they also said they feared retaliation from the prison for speaking out.
The commissioner claimed that the long-term lock-in policy was for prisoners’ safety, but in reality it was closer to solitary confinement. The National Institute of Health and other organizations report that more than 15 days in solitary with isolation, psychological suffering, and physical inactivity is considered “torture” and can lead to self-harm, violence, and suicide.
The prisoners had been weathering COVID, and by Feb. 24, one-third of the population of Old Colony, i.e. 245 men, had contracted the disease, according to the Special Master, an attorney appointed to track such data. However, all group mental health treatment programs had ceased. Men told me mental health services had been reduced to clinicians doing rounds in the morning asking if they would like some puzzles.
“I was standing on the top tier on the other side of the unit when he jumped,” said Keven Blakemore, who said he was called “retarded” by a CO for requesting mental health services. He continued, “The unit officers were in complete shock but they responded almost immediately. I remember when they told us to lock in.”
“I was actually doing my workout at the time,” Manny Sanabria told me. Sanabria, who identifies the past six months as the worst period of his decade in prison, said, “I saw him [Beatty] walk up the stairs and go down the hallway. I was facing that hallway when I heard a loud yell that caught my attention. I looked up and saw Joe in kind of a jog/run. He came up on the railing and jumped up so that his waist hit the railing. At first, I thought he was joking, but then I saw his body begin to pitch forward and as his legs came up higher, I noticed that he was not making any effort to stop his momentum. After what seemed like the longest time, he went completely over and fell going headfirst toward the floor.”
“I was frozen for a minute,” Sanabria added, “just because I had never seen anything like that in real life. Listening to the thud as he hit the ground literally made my head buzz.”
The prisoner who Beatty landed on was Randy Velez, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Velez broke his foot when Beatty landed on him. Some say Velez saved Beatty’s life.
Velez said, “The scene of him in midair coming down towards me plays in my head over and over all the time. I have multiple fractures inside my left foot. Lots of swelling and discoloration and pain. There’s been no valid medication given to me, no physical therapy, nothing at all. I’ve taken it on myself to self-rehabilitate.”
Will Soper‘s job in the institution involves taking trays of food to the highest security mental health area in OCCC where they eventually held Beatty after the suicide attempt. (Beatty had first been moved by the Fire Department to a hospital, indicates the incident report.) Recently, Soper asked Beatty why he jumped. Beatty reportedly told him, “I wanted to die because I was tired of being in prison.”
Beatty, who was sexually abused as a child, has a first-degree life sentence for murder and rape with no eligibility to see parole; he never expects to get out of prison no matter how much work he does on himself. He pled “mentally ill” and for 10 years was declared incompetent to stand trial. He was finally declared competent, and then, tried and sentenced to life.
Beatty doesn’t blame OCCC mental health clinicians. He said that the voices in his head encouraged him to jump. He explained, “The day before, I gave away my belongings such as sneakers, radio, and canteen food. I knew I was going to jump and I knew I was going to be dead. The lucky part is I landed on someone which broke the fall. The sad part is he became a victim of my trying to kill myself.”
Beatty is now out of isolation and said that people on the unit have been supportive. “Their positive support is louder than the voices in my head,” he added.
Randy Velez expressed a sentiment that is shared by many at OCCC: “Having to deal with being enclosed in a cell for so many hours due to this pandemic will really drive someone off the ledge.”
So-called mental health unit
Kate Piper, a paralegal at Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS), said in a phone interview that “the most common forms of suicide are hanging and cutting. Jumping is less common. I’ve been at PLS for four-and-a-half years and I’ve only heard of three jumps. One was Hampden County, and one was at Souza, and now, this one at Old Colony.”
Several prisoners and a formerly incarcerated man told me about another person jumping at OCCC. It happened about five years ago. Someone who witnessed the event said a couple of guys were walking up the ramp heading to the music room when a prisoner named “Turtle” ran by them and said, “What’s up?” He ran to the top of the ramp, stepped up on the ledge, looked back at the guard and said, “Do you think turtles can fly?.” The guard yelled, “Get down from there!” But Turtle jumped. Legend has it he broke both his legs and wrapped up his sentence about eight months later.
Piper said that according to a public records request, this past January 2021, there were five deaths in Mass state prisons. Three of the five were at Old Colony.
“It’s relentless,” she said about the number of complaints she gets from prisoners. “They are desperate to get out of their cells.” Adding, “People call saying, I just can’t bear it. The number of psychiatric intakes; people hearing voices; the walls are closing in on me; I can’t talk to my family; I’ve lost it. The COs had to serve the food; meals were coming hours late; people were hungry. Just relentless and devastating.”
Old Colony has a reputation for being a mental health prison, but that it is not entirely true. While the Residential Treatment Unit (RTU) at OCCC is where the jump occurred, Piper clarified that other prisons have their own RTUs. An RTU is supposed to provide more mental health treatment and structure but mirror the general population. Prisoners without mental health diagnoses are also sent to OCCC. Shawn Fisher, who does not live on the RTU, said at least 100 to 150 prisoners at OCCC do not have open mental health cases; Fisher wrote a blog here about being locked down at Old Colony during COVID.
Prisoners need to be classified by the DOC—evaluated for risk and treatment needs—in order to be put in an RTU. If there is an incident such as Beatty’s attempted suicide, they may be temporarily committed to the Intensive Stabilization and Observation Unit (ISOU), another area in Old Colony. Once there, they either have what is called “eyeball watch” (i.e., one guard to one prisoner), or the correction officers observe people at fifteen-minute intervals. Prisoners stay in the ISOU for thirty days and are evaluated before they are moved.
Last November, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division issued a scathing report, stating that the Massachusetts DOC was not providing “constitutionally adequate supervision to prisoners in mental health crisis,” or “adequate mental health care to prisoners in mental health crisis.” It warned the DOC that steps must be taken, or a lawsuit could be filed in 49 days, and cited the DOC as responsible for prisoners in mental health crises engaging in self-harm. We contacted the DOJ, but they did not make clear what follow up came after the report.
Jason Dobson, the Deputy Director for the DOC, wrote in an email that the “DOC has maintained contact and cooperation with the DOJ, both during their investigation and since its conclusion to address the issues raised in the report and maintain the significant progress we have already made. We fully anticipate this collaboration will continue under the new administration in Washington.”
While the findings of the DOJ indict all prisons across the DOC, OCCC should come under closer scrutiny, said the men I spoke with.
Sanabria said, “It seemed like once the prison was given the greenlight to lock us in, they took it and decided that they would do whatever they could to keep it that way. It made their job easier to have us in a cell. I know, for me personally, my depression has deepened. Anxiety has been through the roof. Feeling helpless and more animal than human has been really hard for me.”
There were other ways Massachusetts could have handled the pandemic besides lock-in for everyone. According to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, legislation in New Jersey and executive orders and commutations in 18 states from Oregon to Kentucky afforded some releases, mostly for those close to ending their sentences and those convicted of nonviolent crimes.
PLS, which sued the DOC, the Parole Board, and Gov. Charlie Baker unsuccessfully to decarcerate state prisons, wrote to Baker and others about this “public health travesty” in January. They recognized that vaccines would take months to affect the trauma from a year of lockdown. Mass began vaccinating state prisoners in late January, and by April 15, 70% of incarcerated people had accepted the shots.
PLS executive director Elizabeth Matos stated in the letter, “The damage to the mental health of those in these settings could have permanent and long-term effects. They have been cut off from visits with loved ones and had limited access to phone calls. Despite being in state custody, many have gone completely ignored and self-harmed while in acute crisis.”
Clinicians have long known that suicide is the leading form of death in jails. According to the American Medical Student Association, there are an estimated 383,200 prisoners with a severe psychiatric disorder in the US, more than 10 times as many as people who are housed in state mental hospitals.
In 2019, across all Mass state prisons, “Prisoners with serious mental illness comprise[d] approximately 24% … of the population,” according to the DOJ report. It specified, “between July 1, 2018 and August 31, 2019, there were 217 instances of cutting, 85 instances of prisoners inserting objects into their bodies, 77 attempted hanging incidents, 34 instances of ingestion of foreign bodies, and 17 attempted asphyxiations, all on mental health watch.”
Before the pandemic, there were attempts on the RTU to mitigate the men’s issues. Will Soper said he took five mental health programs a week. Group offerings included art therapy, healthy relationships, self-esteem, addiction therapy, healthy healing, and a group for those with anxiety. While Commissioner Mici said in a March 2020 memo that mental health would still be available “to those in need,” Soper told me it took until March 29, 2021, for once-a-week group programming to resume. Soper said, “I’ve been in the system for 30 years and I’ve never seen the things I’ve seen this year.”
Soper described how in October or November of 2020, he was coming back from the medication line, and saw JM leave his cell and head to the day room with his shirt and pants on fire. Soper said, “He had a lot of clothing on so he could burn. … The COs told him to drop and roll and then they came with a big yellow fire cart with a fire extinguisher, but they didn’t end up spraying him because the fire went out when he rolled. A medical team came and put him on a stretcher and wheeled him out to an outside hospital. When he came back to the unit and the COs were talking about it, I found out he had stuck a battery in his penis.”
Sanabria said the trauma of watching such incidents has really had an impact on him. He said, “I think of what they must have been thinking and feeling to decide that they no longer wanted to continue living. I’ve had to deal with thoughts of taking my own life.” He’s self-injured six times in the past year—cut his wrist and stabbed himself with foreign objects—requiring trips to an outside hospital. He’s also gone on hunger strikes.
Such desperation is not surprising, said Piper, considering the lock-in and the fact that in-person visits have been suspended in Massachusetts prisons for more than a year. Researchers have often pointed out that contact with loved ones reduces self-harm and is one of the most important stabilizers for people behind bars.
DeShawn Williams, who was put on mental health watch when his grandfather died, said he was one of the people interviewed by the DOJ. He claimed that in the RTU, “the self-injury rate was through the roof.”
An OCCC incident report filed on April 14, 2020, said that Williams “had swallowed batteries, nail clippers, screws, and some Benadryl.” He was transported in restraints and “escorted to the body scanner” before he was “secured” in a holding cell. There was no mention of what Williams told me as to why he might have done this: “People like myself have to self-injure just to get their needs met.”
Treatment of men like Williams has been questioned by psychiatrists like Dr. Stuart Grassian. According to a 2019 NPR segment, Grassian spent 25 years at Harvard studying how conditions in solitary confinement cause harm, particularly for people who have mental illness diagnoses. Grassian said, “It’s a tragedy—absolutely immoral—to see that happen to people.”
Reports show that even in 2019, “According to federal data on state and federal prisons from 2011 to 2012,” barely half of prisoners nationwide diagnosed with a mental health disorder received treatment. Instead, “They were more likely to be written up or charged with verbal or physical assault against correctional staff” without a mention of mental health problems.
And then in 2020, COVID hit prisons across the country. By April 20, 2021, 395,915 incarcerated people had tested positive for the virus, according to the nonprofit The Marshall Project.
The Special Master’s report points out that the first case of COVID-19 didn’t appear in the prisoner population of OCCC until the week of Dec. 3, 2020, seven months after it first appeared at the Mass Treatment Center in Bridgewater. Also, on Dec. 3, only one Old Colony staff member and seven COs tested positive.
“Then it spread like wildfire,” Will Soper said. Up to 246 prisoners, and at least 68 of the staff and COs had positive COVID tests in the two-and-a-half months before the day of the jump. He and others say OCCC was not prepared for the outbreak.
Several men were infuriated that the prison began moving people into the RTU before their COVID test results had come back, and unsurprisingly, the cases spiked.
“They put a sick person in my cell,” said Soper, and then he got sick. Like many others, Soper said nothing about his COVID because he didn’t want to be put in segregation. “They could have used the gymnasium to quarantine,” said Soper, but they didn’t.
“In the course of two months, nobody was living where they used to live,” said Shawn Fisher. Fisher, Joe Beatty, and Kevin Blakemore also contracted the virus.
In early April, 2021, Old Colony responded to the suicide attempt by mounting steel bars on the upper tiers in the units. Fisher said, “The bars extend from the balcony to the ceiling. Each bar appears to be about a couple inches apart making it impossible for someone to jump off the tier.”
“The bars are overkill,” said Soper, brushing aside what he felt was a misguided, too little-too late approach. As he sees it, bars don’t promote healing.
“There is so much more that we have all lost during this pandemic,” he said.
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.