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Challenges for Prisons Chief

On Beacon Hill today, a joint oversight committee will look into the alarming rate of suicides in prison. Over the past year, the suicide rate in Massachusetts prisons has risen to four times the national average.

The mental health of prisoners is just one of many challenges facing a yet-to-be-named new commissioner for the state's Department of Correction. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports.

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MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Outgoing Correction Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy says the new commissioner should have a strong stomach to attack the many problems facing the department.

KATHLEEN DENNEHY: Do they have the intestinal fortitude to dig in their heel and stay the course. I've learned over the past three years it's very easy to set a course to chart a course the challenge is in staying the course.

BRADY-MYEROV: The commissioner serves at the will of the governor. The first obstacle will be agreeing on a contract with the correction officers union, which is now under negotiation. This is the same union that Dennehy claimed slashed her tires and followed her with a giant inflatable rat to undermine her. Former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger says the union is an obstacle to any commissioner.

SCOTT HARSHBARGER: I mean the fact is you have a labor management contract that over the years have taken away the managerial rights of the commissioner.

BRADY-MYEROV: Harshbarger chaired a commission that reviewed the correction system after defrocked priest John Geoghan was murdered in prison.

HARSHBARGER: You have a system where 73% of budget is allocated for personnel and in which just this one example is not at all to criticize correctional officers they do difficult and dangerous job but they have 65 paid leave days.

BRADY-MYEROV: The union did not return calls for comment. Another hurdle for the new head is the prison classification system says Leslie Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. Walker says the DOC is still over classifying prisoners, that is putting mid-level offenders in high security prisons.

LESLIE WALKER: Massachusetts has twice the number recommended in the maximum security prisons and half the number in the minimum security prisons. If we had more people in the mediums and minimums like the rest of the country, we could reduce costs by having less officers.

BRADY-MYEROV: The state spends more on corrections than it does on higher education. It costs about $44,000 a year per prisoner. Scott Harshbarger says another systemic problem is the care of mentally ill prisoners.

HARSHBARGER: we're running probably the largest mental health system in the state is being run in the depar4tment of corrections. Until you either have the budget increase for the doc to deal with that, or these agencies led by the executive office of public safety step up and work on that there are going to barriers for the new commissioner as well.

BRADY-MYEROV: The result of poor mental health care is a high rate of suicides in prison, says Senator Jarred Barrios, who co-chairs the hearing today on prisoners' mental health.

JARRED BARRIOS: Looking at it over time over the last ten years we've been at about 2x the suicide rate when compared to the national average. We are at about 4x that rate over the last year.

BRADY-MYEROV: A correction department study of prison conditions released in February found that prison practices and policies were partly to blame for the high rate of suicides.

The non-profit Disability Law Center is suing the DOC in federal court saying isolating mentally ill inmates at high security prisons, violates federal laws. Leslie Walker of the Mass Correctional Legal Services hopes the new commissioner will address this problem.

WALKER: the commissioner can do what the current administration has not done which is listen to the people that it contracts for with mental health services. Listen to outside experts on panel it appoints. Since 1989 either commissions appointed by the governor or the department or correction and the mental health staff have recommended residential treatment units at high security, specialized mental health units.

BRADY-MYEROV: Currently James Bender, a 30-year employee is acting as Correction Commissioner. On paper, the job sounds alluring... a CEO level position with half a billion dollar budget, five thousand staff members and about eleven thousand people in your care. But in reality, Senator Barrios calls it the biggest no win position in government.

For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on May 1, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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