When Joanne Minich recently visited son Peter, 31, at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts, prison guards brought her to a locked cell that inmates call the "bird cage," where he was shackled at the hands, waist and bare feet, she says.
For the past 14 months, Peter Minich has been legally committed to a legendary facility once called the state hospital "for the criminally insane" but, according to his Brookline, Mass., mother, he has never been convicted of a crime – only diagnosed with a mental illness.
Minich says her son has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since his late teens and a court sent him to Bridgewater in January 2013, after staff members at another psychiatric hospital filed assault misdemeanor criminal charges against him. Her son had no previous criminal record or history of violent behavior, she says.
"People say it's a hospital, but it's not a hospital. It's a prison," Minich, 66, said of the facility, which is administered by the state Department of Correction. "I don't think they are helping him at all. It's torture. It looks like a cage you put an animal in."
Minich has now filed a lawsuit in Norfolk County Superior Court against the state Department of Correction, the superintendent of Bridgewater State Hospital, the state of Massachusetts and MHM Services Inc., a national health care provider, for alleged abuses against her son.
The March 31 lawsuit, which was obtained by ABCNews.com, alleges that staff have isolated her son in a locked seclusion room at the intensive-treatment unit for at least 6,300 hours from January 14, 2013 to March 12, 2014, and restrained him to objects like his bed for 815 hours from January 14, 2013 to January 22, 2014.
She says her son's caregivers have violated American Psychiatric Association guidelines, as well as the state's Seclusion and Restraint law, which allows such techniques "in cases of emergency, such as the occurrence of, or serious threat of, extreme violence, personal injury or attempted suicide."
Seclusion and restraints were ordered for incidents such as hearing voices, licking another inmate's feet, having a seizure and being assaulted by another inmate, according to 5,000 pages of prison records cited in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that her son was offered no exercise program or outdoor activity, and his food was delivered through a "slot in the door." His only contact with other human beings was when placed in restraints, medicated or given electro-shock treatment, according to the lawsuit.
Peter Minich's parents have only been allowed to visit their son once a week, with a 10-minute phone call every two days. They say his condition has worsened, with more hallucinations and anxiety, and he has become more aggressive as a result of incarceration. They say their son has also lost 40 pounds.
"It's horrible," Minich, who works in a special care nursery with premature babies, told ABCNews.com. "He's living with this mental illness and you can't let the system destroy him. It's not humanitarian what they are doing to him. He is a difficult case. I am not denying that, but it doesn't mean he should be in a prison."
Minich is demanding that her son be moved from Bridgewater. "All I want is him out of there and in a therapeutic environment," she said. "I am afraid one day I will get the phone call saying he is dead. It's a horrible way to live."
The lawsuit is not seeking damages, but compliance with the seclusion and restraint statute; a treatment plan that includes individual and group therapy, and socialization and "activities of daily living" training; and a transfer to a place that is not a prison.
This is not the first time Bridgewater has come under fire for alleged abuse. In 2009, inmate Joshua K. Messier, 23, died while guards were placing him in restraints. A Boston Globe expose resulted in the discipline of six correction officials, and the state has agreed to pay the family $3 million as part of a settlement.
In 1967, Bridgewater State Hospital was the subject of a documentary, "Titicut Follies," which showed graphic examples of physical abuse by staff and doctors. A Superior Court judge banned its public showing and ordered all copies of the film seized because of “crudities, nudities, and obscenities … eighty minutes of brutal sordidness and human degradation."
"This is worse than anything I saw in 'Titicut Follies,'" Minich's lawyer, Roderick MacLeish Jr., told ABCNews.com. "At least they let them out in the yard and they had Christmas parties."
The lawsuit states that for 60 days at the end of 2013, Minich was held in seclusion for 24 hours a day, all but for eight and a half hours, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. In October of that year, he was allegedly held in mechanical restraint for more than 50 consecutive hours.
MacLeish alleges that Peter Minich, an intelligent man, has been given no reading materials when asked, nor stimulating activities while in solitary confinement, and, as a result, has deteriorated mentally.
"This is a slow death for Peter," he said. "It has evolved as part of our punitive culture." MacLeish said that Bridgewater was "cleaned up" in the 1980s. "But now we find out they are back to their old practices. … It's a disgrace, particularly since our governor [Deval Patrick] used to be head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department and has widely said that isolation should not be used."
Patrick has been outspoken on the issue, saying these measures should be used as a "last resort."
The governor's press secretary, Heather Nichols, responded to a request by ABCNews.com for comment by referring by citing part of a speech Patrick made last month:
"The evidence tells us that methods traditionally used to handle difficult prisoners may actually exacerbate the difficulties of those with mental illness. Solitary confinement can cause extreme disorientation that only worsens asocial behavior within a correctional institute -- let alone after release. If it remains a feature of our correctional system, it should be reserved for the most exceptional situations, and only as a last resort.
"Fully restraining a mentally ill inmate carries similar risks. Unless it can be said with certainty that the inmate poses a serious and immediate physical danger to himself or his fellow inmates, he should not be tied down, limb-by-limb, in a 21st Century correctional institution. Most of our inmates -- even the most difficult ones -- will return to the streets of our Commonwealth. Our treatment of them must always keep that fact in mind, and preserve to the extent possible their own grip on their humanity."
The Massachusetts Department of Correction provided ABCNews.com with this statement: