Group Of Civilly Committed Men Sues Mass. Alleging Gender Discrimination In 'Section 35' Law

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The Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center in Plymouth houses men for court-mandated addiction treatment. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center in Plymouth houses men for court-mandated addiction treatment. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A group of men is suing the state of Massachusetts over the law, known as "Section 35," that allowed a judge to involuntarily commit each of them to addiction treatment.

The lawsuit filed by 10 men civilly committed to the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC), a minimum security prison in Plymouth, alleges that because the state no longer allows women to be involuntarily committed to prisons for addiction treatment, it should not do so for men, either. MASAC is overseen by the state Department of Correction.

The plaintiffs allege there is scant addiction treatment at MASAC, but widespread mistreatment. They say they are treated like inmates even though they haven't committed any crimes.

Under Section 35, officers, medical professionals or household or family members can petition the courts to civilly commit a person to drug or alcohol treatment. If a judge agrees the person's substance use poses a danger to either themselves or others, they can be sent to treatment against their will.

Supporters of the law say a locked-down facility is often needed for people in the throes of addiction. Many of those who involuntarily commit loved ones to treatment say it was a step they had to take to try to keep their loved one alive.

The Plymouth prison, which holds more than 200 beds, opened in 2017. It is the largest of the three state-run facilities that accept male patients committed under Section 35.

The suit alleges the prison is a "perversely oppressive environment that is punitive, humiliating and detrimental to treatment."

For example, the suit claims patients are forced to wear orange prison jumpsuits, are strip-searched, monitored by correction officers, and can be placed in segregation.

Patients at MASAC at Plymouth live in rooms with two bunks each. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Patients at MASAC at Plymouth live in rooms with two bunks each. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

"One of our plaintiffs recounts being found with a pouch of tobacco and being sent for days locked in a small cell with a video camera on him," said Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney with Prisoners' Legal Services, the group that filed the suit on behalf of the men. "Some are on mental health watch, and what's mental health watch? It's solitary confinement. This is not an environment that is conducive to recovery."

A woman, Britney, who doesn't want to give her last name so as not to identify her 25-year-old fiance who is one of the plaintiffs, says officials move men through MASAC "like cattle."

She says he tells her the prison is dirty, and it's punitive, with men often placed in segregation, or "the hole."

"When he was first there," she says, "he was put in the hole for like 60 hours. He was put in in just his boxers and a blanket that didn't even cover his entire body."

Last year, the Baker administration established a committee to review the Section 35 process. At one commission meeting, 36-year-old Joel Kergaravat, of Lowell, testified that MASAC is a violent and dangerous place.

"There were brutal fistfights that went on for five minutes before guards would come and break it up," Kergaravat said. "You'd see blood, you'd hear screaming, people hurt. And then I hadn't talked to my family in two weeks because my phone list hadn't been approved."

The lawsuit echoes what many have said about the addiction treatment at MASAC. Kergaravat says most of the time he was bored, and there were no significant counseling or mental health services.

Rebecca Carr, an addiction counselor who worked at Plymouth, says counselors there work hard, but they're overwhelmed and essentially serve as case managers planning what to do when the men leave.

"Your job is to get people out of there, basically," Carr said. "You get them after-care treatment, housing and find them a way to get there. Treatment, housing transportation — that's all you're supposed to do."

Many men who've been "sectioned" report a different experience at the Men's Addiction Treatment Center (MATC), which is run by the Department of Public Health. They say they receive comprehensive addiction treatment, clinicians who work with their families, and they can keep taking addiction and psychiatric medications.

More than 6,000 people were civilly committed in Massachusetts in the last fiscal year. The law allows men to be committed to treatment for up to 90 days, although the average stay is much shorter.

This is not the first time Massachusetts has faced litigation over Section 35. In 2016, the state stopped sending civilly committed women to correctional facilities in response to a lawsuit. Despite that suit, the state has increased the number of Section 35 beds for men in correctional facilities. Three-quarters of all Section 35 beds are run by state correction officials.

"Why are men being sent to prison?" Tenneriello, the Prisoners' Legal Services attorney, said. "The Baker administration was proud of stopping the practice of sending civilly committed women to prison. That environment is no more appropriate for men."

The suit, which names state health and public safety officials, alleges gender discrimination, disability discrimination and violations of constitutional due process rights. (People with substance use disorders are considered disabled under federal law.)

State officials say they will not comment on pending litigation. The state has 20 days to respond to the suit.

This article was originally published on March 14, 2019.

This segment aired on March 15, 2019.


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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