Civil Commitment For Addiction Treatment Led To Loved One's Suicide, Family Says

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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)

Robin Wallace thought her years of working in addiction treatment gave her a decent understanding of the system. She had worked in private and state programs, and with people who were involuntarily committed to treatment.

So in 2017, as her 33-year-old son, Sean Wallace, was still struggling after years of coping with mental health and substance use issues, she thought she made the right choice in forcing him into treatment.

Now she thinks that contributed to Sean taking his own life.

The Law Known As 'Section 35'

Robin became one of the thousands of Massachusetts residents who each year ask the courts to force a loved one into addiction treatment under the state law known as Section 35. After a court clinician reviewed Robin's request, a judge agreed that Sean's substance use posed a danger to himself and/or others, and ordered that Sean be sent to one of the state facilities for civilly committed men.

Sean Wallace, during an earlier construction job (Courtesy of Heather McDermott)
Sean Wallace, during an earlier construction job (Courtesy of Heather McDermott)

Sean was handcuffed in court and transported to the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC), which had just opened with 200 beds for men in a minimum security prison in a remote area of Plymouth. Sean begged not to go and told his mother that he would no longer be able to take his daily 120-milligram dose of methadone addiction medication.

She thought Sean was wrong. "I didn't conceive that he wouldn't have methadone," Robin said. "I didn't understand how different it was for those committed to treatment in a prison run by the Department of Correction."

Massachusetts is one of a few states that uses its prisons to involuntarily commit men to addiction treatment — and it uses it more than most states.

The DOC does not provide methadone or another addiction medication, buprenorphine, although it says it is working on offering it to civilly committed men. One of the three Section 35 facilities for men is overseen by the Department of Public Health, and that does provide the medications.

As for women, the state stopped sending women to correctional facilities for forced treatment in 2016, after it was sued. That lawsuit alleged that prison could be traumatic and not an appropriate place for addiction treatment. A class-action lawsuit filed this month alleges gender discrimination because the state continues to increase the number of beds in jails and prisons for civilly committed men.

'I'm Just Not The Same'

Many neighbors who live near the Plymouth facility found out there were treatment beds in the prison when police helicopters were searching the nearby forest for men who tried to flee. Sean Wallace was among them. He was found in the woods and taken to the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, a more secure facility that also houses men convicted of sex crimes. (Some men there have completed their sentences but are deemed too dangerous to be released.)

Sean says he was traumatized. In an interview in 2017, Sean described what he went through as "torture" — especially at Bridgewater.

"I feel scared all the time," Sean said then. "I feel like this is just a dream and I'm going to wake up and be back there. I shake a lot and I'm just not the same as when I went in there."

Sean said he was harassed by guards and some of the incarcerated men threatened him and his family. Sean said the incarcerated men would prepare the food and spit in it, and most of the time he was in segregation, or "the hole."

"I couldn't sleep or eat or even be in my own skin," Sean said in 2017. "I was kicking methadone and drugs, I was hallucinating. It was the worst experience of my life. Here I was — not having committed any crime — in the hole and being harassed by really dangerous people."

Sean was moved back to Plymouth, along with other men who fled, after the DOC reached an agreement with a nonprofit that represents people incarcerated in Massachusetts. A judge said he was "troubled" that state officials sent civilly committed men to Bridgewater and ordered the state to find an alternative.

Sean said Plymouth was better than Bridgewater — but not much. He said he was also placed in segregation in Plymouth for refusing to eat.

"It's considered a behavioral issue if you refuse your tray," Sean said. "I didn't know that; I was just sick. I wasn't trying to be malicious or not behave. It was the worst thing I've ever gone through. There's no compassion in there. There's no treatment."

'We Were Almost There'

The DOC contracts with an outside vendor to provide treatment at Plymouth. The men are scheduled to attend group meetings and meet with a counselor.

Rebecca Carr was Sean's counselor and worked for the vendor, Correct Care Solutions, although she no longer works there. Carr agrees that treatment was minimal, but she says DOC rules and security often got in the way. Carr felt that her role at Plymouth was more of a case manager, focused mainly on planning where the men would go after they were released.

"Section 35 is not treatment; it's more an intervention," Carr said. "There's not a lot of getting personal or having deep conversations with people. I understand why. It's really not the atmosphere to do that. I don't believe that being in a prison setting with 200-some guys is a good setting to start delving into your childhood issues and things like that."

Carr helped arrange for Sean to resume taking methadone and go back to living on Cape Cod with his longtime partner, Heather McDermott.

WBUR also spoke with McDermott after Sean's release in 2017 and she said he was having trouble. McDermott described Sean as lethargic, often fearful, unable to remember things and embarrassed by it. She interrupted him several times during the interview to say he wasn't making sense.

Sean Wallace (Courtesy of Heather McDermott)
Sean Wallace (Courtesy of Heather McDermott)

"I wish you could have seen him before — he wasn't like this," McDermott said then. "He looks different, he sounds different. It's like they broke his spirit. But we'll get it back."

That did not happen.

After his release from Plymouth, McDermott says Sean resumed methadone and saw a counselor. But she says Sean was no longer able to hold the construction job he had before. In his journals, he often wrote about his time in Plymouth. After a few months, McDermott and Sean stopped living together, although they were frequently in touch. She says she never gave up trying to get him help.

"I spent the last year of his life just literally screaming that from the rooftops — going to doctors everywhere I could with him. He was like a big, sad, depressed tumor that I was trying to bring back to life," she said tearfully. "And it makes me livid because of this epidemic. Here we are — we really want to be better and be an asset to society. We lived under bridges at one point and here we are now. We had a home, I can't believe we got here. And then — then he died. We were almost there."

Although the circumstances are in dispute, police were called to McDermott’s house in March of last year, resulting in Sean being charged with assault on a household member. He was released but still not functioning well. He wound up in a psychiatric hospital for a short time, and was then arrested again, shortly after that release, for trying to break into a house. A judge ordered Sean incarcerated at the Barnstable County jail, where he took his life eight days later.

"I think that Sean's trauma from the Section 35 was very much triggered by him being in a cell and he just felt like he couldn't take it anymore," Robin Wallace said.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings declined to comment for this story.

But documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request describe what happened to Sean: As food trays were being served to inmates in the top tier of the jail, at about 4 p.m. on July 18, Sean ran to a railing. Although guards ordered him to get down, Sean jumped and landed on the floor below. The documents describe the incident as a "suicide attempt," but say there was "nothing specific" indicating that, such as a suicide note or threat. Sean was airlifted to Rhode Island Hospital, where he spent more than a month in a coma before he died.

Sean's father, Richard Wallace, believes his son became despondent while incarcerated, in part because he was again denied methadone.

"Had my son been given the medication he was authorized, he would still be here today," Richard said.

Richard says he never heard from the jail about what happened, and was notified by the hospital.

"It was about 7 p.m. and I got a call from Rhode Island Hospital, asking for authorization to perform emergency brain surgery," Richard said.

The state Department of Correction declined to be interviewed for this story but released a statement saying its mission at MASAC is to promote public safety by providing a "safe, secure and structured environment for patients to safely detox."

Section 35 May Be Changing

Some officials and families say a secure, locked setting is often necessary and many treatment programs will not accept patients who don't want to be in treatment.

Some 3,000 men have been civilly committed to MASAC in Plymouth since it opened in 2017. In the last fiscal year alone, Massachusetts courts received more than 10,000 requests for involuntary addiction treatment for both men and women.

A state commission established last year is reviewing Section 35. One woman, who didn't want her name used so her son would not be identified, told the commission that the law saved her son's life.

"He later thanked me for going to court and forcing him into treatment," she told the commission. "Although it might be better if it wasn't in a prison, I don't think my son would be here if we didn't have this option."

Even Robin Wallace agrees that sometimes treatment has to be forced on someone in the throes of addiction. But she says her son's story shows that Massachusetts needs to make changes.

"My culpability is something I have to live with," she said. "I did the Section 35. His father and I precipitated that in the hopes that his life would get better. Instead his life got much much worse and he received punishment rather than help."

Section 35 may be about to change. After a commission meeting last year, Marylou Sudders, the commission chair and the state health and human services secretary, said that she's on board.

"I think it should be a clinical process and not a court process where people get picked up by police and shackled and taken into a holding cell," Sudders said.

The commission is supposed to make recommendations to lawmakers later this year.

Share your experiences, and follow along with our reporters as they cover opioid use and treatment, by joining our Facebook group, "Living The Opioid Epidemic."

This segment aired on March 26, 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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