One opponent of the proposal says, “putting people in jail to receive treatment is unjust. Having a substance or alcohol use disorder is not a crime.”
Last week, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLS) held a press conference at the Massachusetts State House “in response to the Massachusetts House’s recent proposal to increase funding for the incarceration of people civilly committed for treatment of substance use disorder (SUD), under the statute known as Section 35 (M.G.L. c.123 s.35).”
As advocates noted, “the current [state] budget is poised to funnel $21.9 million into the Department of Corrections’ Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC) facility and $2.5 million into the Section 35 facility operated by the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, respectively.”
As the Dig reported last year in a joint investigation with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, while some families say it’s better than the alternative, others civilly committed for addiction in Mass have faced abusive prison conditions. From that article:
Compelled by the horror of addiction and the desperation that follows repeated relapses, Bay State families filed roughly 11,000 commitment petitions in 2018 alone, according to data first accessed by WBUR. That’s a nearly 100% increase compared to data from 2010, just eight years earlier.
This system, as a whole, is severely overwhelmed. As a result, national groups have rated the Commonwealth’s civil commitment apparatus one of the worst in the country. Mass is currently defending itself against multiple lawsuits alleging everything from neglect to physical abuse of civil commitment patients. Under pressure, some elected leaders are calling for reform.
On Beacon Hill last week, speakers, “including public health experts and directly impacted people,” “urged the passage of amendments by state Rep. Ruth Balser to “redirect the money away from correctional facilities and into health care settings.
“Substance and alcohol use disorders are medical conditions that deserve prompt diagnosis and treatment,” President of the Massachusetts Society of Addiction Medicine Dr. Todd Kerensky said. “As with all medical conditions, people should expect treatment to be grounded in the four principles of medical ethics: autonomy, do good (beneficence), do no harm (non-maleficence), and justice. We can have a reasonable debate about whether involuntary treatment is potentially helpful or harmful. However, putting people in jail to receive treatment is unjust. Having a substance or alcohol use disorder is not a crime.”
“As addiction experts, we know correctional environments do not foster recovery. There’s no other medical condition where we would consider sending individuals to correctional settings, let alone expect them to heal or recover there,” Deb Goldfarb, a licensed independent clinical social worker at the Grayken Center for Addiction, added. “Resources should be allocated towards ensuring equal access to person-centered, humane, and evidence-based treatment options in health care settings.”
A media release from PLS said, “Incarcerating people for SUD treatment is a harmful and antiquated practice—a vestige of a time when SUD was seen as a moral failing rather than a disease. This policy is dehumanizing and reinforces the stigma associated with addiction, discouraging people from seeking help.”
“SUD and Alcohol Disorder are diseases, and they are legally recognized disabilities,” explained Bonita Tenneriello, a senior attorney with PLS. “Yet Massachusetts, alone among states, has a policy of sending men to prison solely because of these diseases. This reinforces a long history of stigma that stops people from getting treatment for SUD. People with addiction and their families should not be saddled with the shame of prison. Instead our lawmakers should feel shame to continue this horrific policy.”
“From the minute I went in I felt like a prisoner,” said Christopher Hiltz, who was held in MASAC earlier this year. “The guards yelled at me and treated me terribly, and they punished me with solitary confinement in a cold cement cell with urine on the floor. I wanted to get sober but this did not help.”
“I had no idea that he was going to be sent to prison and treated like an inmate,” shared Mr. Hiltz’s sister. “I thought this was to help somebody with drug addiction and mental illness, but it only made things worse.”
PLS broke down Balser’s amendment: “332 would eliminate the funds for incarceration under Section 35,” while “333 which would redirect funding to community treatment programs and, as necessary, Section 35 programs licensed or approved by the Departments of Public Health and Mental Health.” “These amendments are imperative to ending this harmful and senseless practice,” the advocacy organization said in a statement.
“Public health crises require public health solutions, not criminalization,” Oami Amarasingham, Deputy Director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association said. “The criminalization of substance use disorder under Section 35 is an obstacle to addressing one of our state’s biggest public health issues. Rather than increase funding for incarceration, we urge legislators to follow the recommendations of the Section 35 commission to expand access to treatment programs and stop sending civilly-committed men to criminal justice facilities for treatment.”