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Baker Administration Calls For Focus On Treatment, Not Punishment, At Bridgewater Hospital03:00Download

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On Beacon Hill Tuesday afternoon, key members of the Baker administration briefed legislators on a new plan to shift the approach on treatment of men at Bridgewater State Hospital. The facility treats mentally ill people who have been charged with or convicted of crimes.

The plan comes after a number of patients at the facility, run by the state's Department of Correction, died while in custody.

"The goal in this case is to take Bridgewater State Hospital and transition it from what it is now, into more of a mental health facility," says Secretary of Public Safety and Security Dan Bennett.

Bennett outlined the plan for the Legislature's Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

The state is asking for mental health providers to submit bids, showing how they would operate the facility with more of a treatment approach, as opposed to punishment. The Department of Correction would continue to provide security, but it would be strictly mental health professionals, and not corrections officers, who would provide treatment.

"There's going to be more individualized treatment, there's going to be mental health treatment in a person-centered, trauma-informed recovery philosophy," Bennett explained. "There's going to be a goal of improving patients' overall level of functioning, and preparing them for their successful transition and discharge from the Bridgewater State Hospital."

Bennett says to do this, inmates at the hospital who have been criminally sentenced by the courts will be relocated to a special annex at the nearby Old Colony Correctional Center, and that 170-190 correctional officers will be transferred to other facilities. That will leave only civilly committed patients, and pre-trial patients sent by the court for observation.

While the DOC will still be in charge, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders says the Department of Mental Health will work closely on the changes.

"There is an enhanced role for the Department of Mental Health -- particularly on some of the areas that we bring the expertise to," Sudders said. "We're not security experts, and no one would ever think we would be. But we do understand what a 24/7 psychiatric hospital looks like, what the treatment inside of a hospital should look like."

While patient and inmate advocates, like Christine Griffin of the Disability Law Center, say the plan is a good start, they are concerned Bridgewater will remain under the control of the DOC.

"You can't change the culture by tinkering with component parts such as switching out vendors or sub-populations," Griffin said. "The bottom line is Bridgewater is a prison, not a hospital. A culture of punishment, not therapy."

Griffin says ultimately, she'd like to see Bridgewater State Hospital brought completely under the control of the Department of Mental Health instead of the DOC. That would require a change in state law.

Bids from mental health vendors to operate Bridgewater are due on Nov. 1, with the contract set to go into effect in February of next year.

This segment aired on September 13, 2016.

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Steve Brown Twitter Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's State House reporter.

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