Are The Mentally Ill Treated As Criminals In Massachusetts?

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Despite lawsuits, years of complaints and a recent patient death that was ruled a homicide, advocates for the mentally ill say that, too often, Massachusetts treats those suffering from mental illness as criminals.

At issue is Bridgewater State Hospital, which is actually a medium security prison that provides mental health care for prison inmates, including mental health patients who've never been convicted of crimes.

The Boston Globe has reported on the use of restraints and isolation at Bridgewater — including the case of Joshua Messier. He died in 2009 as six guards — with no mental health training — struggled violently to strap his wrists and ankles to a bed. Authorities ruled his death was a homicide.

Then there's the case of Peter Minich, who suffers from schizophrenia. He was admitted to Bridgewater last year after he assaulted two workers in a psychiatric hospital. He's never been convicted of a crime, but at Bridgewater, guards held him in seclusion and restraints for the better part of 14 months — until his mother filed suit.


Eric MacLeish, attorney with the firm Clark Hunt Ahern and Embry. He represents Peter Minich, and wrote an opinion piece in today's Boston Globe about treating the mentally ill as criminals in Massachusetts.

Joanne Minich, mother of Peter Minich, who has schizophrenia and is at Bridgewater State Hospital.


On Peter Minich's treatment at Bridgewater:
Eric MacLeish: "Peter spent the better part of 14 months in isolation and when he was not in isolation, going outside the facility for electric shock treatments — and then also a mechanical restraint which means he's being tied down with straps on a bed for periods as long as 50 hours. He's not released from those restraints. He has to defecate into a bed pan. Occasionally an arm will be released for him to urinate. But this is absolutely barbaric. These are medieval conditions involving a man who has a biologically based illness."

On what the family wants for Peter:
EM: "This is not a lawsuit, at this point, for money damages. This is a pro bono lawsuit. I was contacted by Mrs. Minich and asked to help for her son. I'd been involved with Bridgewater back in the 1980s and there was consent to prohibit this kind of practice from occurring. And there was the creation of a medium security inmate facility where individuals who had mental illness and who had challenging behavior could be sent. So, the aim of the lawsuit, this is not a class action, although it could be expanded into one, the aim of the lawsuit, principally, is to get people like Peter out of this isolation where their psychosis and their mental illness will become more severe. Secondarily, the aim of the lawsuit — I mean, we are really unlike any other state from what I can see in the country, in that we take people who have not been convicted, and Peter's 'alleged crimes,' they were pushing, striking out while under heavy doses of medication. He's not a violent person, he could never hurt anybody. But they were crimes that he was sent to Bridgewater for a competency evaluation but even if convicted he has no criminal record, these were misdemeanors. He could never, ever have served time in a prison. So, the backdoor way the Department of Mental Health gets these profoundly ill people into Bridgewater is by charging them with petty criminal offenses that are in large part a manifestation of their illness, they're sent to Bridgewater for evaluation on criminal charges and then they can be committed there indefinitely. That's what's happened to Peter, and many other people, too."

On Joanne's hopes for her son:
Joanne Minich: "I just want him to have humane treatment and I want him out of Bridgewater, I don't want him in that society. His confinement there has been frightening and inhuman and it's not right what's going on. I could not stand by any longer and do nothing about it. He has an organic brain disease and when not hearing voices he's a kind, sincere and caring young man. He's a great artist and a fierce scrabble player. And we've struggled for many years to make sure he has the best care possible but his downward and aggressive spiral started at the Department of Mental Health in Bridgewater after our private insurance ran out at McLean. He has no criminal record, he hasn't been convicted of any crime and his only crime is his illness and that is enough of a life sentence."


Radio Boston: Death At Bridgewater

  • "Joshua Messier died in a medium security prison, even though he had not been convicted of a crime. The 23-year-old had schizophrenia, and was prone to violence, so authorities sent him for psychiatric evaluation to Bridgewater State Hospital, which is more prison than medical facility."

WBUR: Report: Mass. Mental Health Services ‘Way Behind’

  • "Massachusetts is “way behind” in its delivery of mental health services with treatment options hampered by budget cuts since 2009, inadequate funding for police training and a shortage of inpatient psychiatric beds that is putting stress on hospital emergency rooms, according to a new report."

The Boston Globe: Mental Illness Not A Crime; Why Treat It That Way?

  • "Think for a moment about the unconditional love we have for our children. Nothing prepares us for it. The bond continues unbroken as our son or daughter goes through the various phases of life. We try to be the best possible parents, sometimes under challenging circumstances."

This segment aired on April 23, 2014.


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