It's been one year since a private company took over operations at the harshest mental health facility in Massachusetts, and many say that's led to a transformation at Bridgewater State Hospital that has changed its decades-long reputation as an inhumane place.
Gov. Charlie Baker and other state officials marked the anniversary with a round-table discussion at the hospital Wednesday, which included officials from the hospital, the state Correction and Mental Health departments, and family members of current Bridgewater patients.
"It had been 30 years with not a lot of movement in the right direction," Baker said. "I'm enormously grateful for the effort and work that our teams collectively put in to find a path and change the way this facility operated."
All of the three dozen or so people at the round-table said the changes at Bridgewater have been dramatic and the mentally ill men there are treated more like patients instead of inmates. Much of the transformation is attributed to the Tennessee-based company Correct Care Solutions, which took over management of Bridgewater last year. The company replaced most correction guards with clinicians to help treat the 600 men sent there by the courts each year because of mental illness. Many of the correction guards who work there now patrol the perimeter and help with transportation, rather than work directly with patients.
Baker said between March of last year and this past April, hours of seclusions and mechanical restraints for Bridgewater patients declined by more than 90 percent.
"I'm incredibly gratified by the results to date and hopefully we continue to build on that," Baker said.
The Legislature approved funding to make many of the changes, and the Baker administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal includes $59 million to fully fund a new clinical contract and continue to invest in the hospital -- which still is under Department of Correction oversight but works more closely with the Department of Mental Health.
"What we've done in this last year, among other things, is start to develop a community," said Kevin Huckshorn, the administrator at Bridgewater. "A community made up of the Department of Corrections, the Department of Mental Health, our family members and so many others. We've all heard the saying, 'It takes a village' -- this took a city."
The changes at Bridgewater were prompted -- in part -- by a lawsuit filed over the death of 23-year-old Joshua Messier. He died in 2009 after he was restrained by correction guards. Video surveillance showed the guards pressed on his back and folded his chest to his knees, while his hands were cuffed behind him. His death was ruled a homicide. Three correction guards were eventually acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and civil rights violations charges.
Loved ones of current Bridgewater patients say the hospital is now a different place.
"The name Josh Messier is probably dear to all of our hearts," said Donna Winant, whose 25-year-old grandson has been a patient at Bridgewater for three years. "It was an archaic system for these people with mental illness. They've now gone from being inmates to being humanized and cared for in a more medical fashion so there are no more incidents like Josh Messier."
Eric MacLeish, the attorney who filed suit on behalf of the Messier family, agrees that the reforms at Bridgewater have been significant. He is representing more than 500 current and former Bridgewater patients in a class-action suit against the state over conditions at the hospital.
"I commend the governor for making Bridgewater a very much improved facility from what it was just last year," MacLeish said. "But we're talking about the most under-served population in our state: the severely mentally ill. So I think we have to remain vigilant that it doesn't go back to what it was."