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A nonprofit watchdog group has opened an investigation into the treatment of inmates at the Bridgewater State Hospital psychiatric prison.
The state Department of Correction confirmed Wednesday that lawyers from the Disability Law Center arrived at the medium-security prison Tuesday to meet with administrators, gather records and talk to patients.
The visit was "a positive meeting," department spokesman Darren Duarte told The Boston Globe.
The investigation comes in the wake of reports that guards and clinicians had illegally put mentally ill inmates and patients into physical restraints and isolation cells, and soon after two high-profile cases.
In one case, the parents of a man who died while being restrained at the facility in 2009 settled a lawsuit for $3 million.
In another, the mother of a man being held at the hospital filed a lawsuit saying he had been restrained and isolated for unreasonably long periods of time.
Under state law, mental health patients may be secluded or restrained only in emergency situations when they are committing or threatening to commit acts of "extreme violence."
The Disability Law Center, which gets a significant portion of its funding from the federal government, is designated under U.S. law to investigate complaints of abuse of disabled people.
"We are acting pursuant to our concern that individuals with mental illness are subject to abuse and neglect at the facility including, but not limited to, a deep concern about the amount of restraint and seclusion," the Disability Law Center's executive director, Christine Griffin, wrote in a letter to state Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral.
Griffin wrote that the center received complaints from "various individuals" and saw "numerous media reports about improper treatment" of patients.
If center officials conclude they have found wrongdoing, they could file a federal lawsuit to force changes.
Duarte said the department has a longstanding relationship with the Disability Law Center and will fully cooperate with the review.
"Bridgewater State Hospital remains committed to reducing the use of seclusion and restraint through patient care improvement initiatives and additional staff training," Duarte said in a statement.
The hospital houses both convicted felons with mental health issues, patients who have never been charged with crimes and those with pending charges but no convictions.