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:
"We are reviewing the complaint and the facts of this case closely. While we cannot comment on specific individuals or cases, the use of seclusion and restraint at Bridgewater State Hospital (BSH) is a clinical decision and one we view as a measure of last resort to protect patients from each other, from themselves and to keep staff safe. These clinical decisions are based on an individual's specific needs, behaviors and medical conditions. The Department of Correction (DOC) has taken a number of steps in recent years to better train staff in de-escalation techniques to limit instances where seclusion and restraint are necessary. Additionally, DOC and BSH work closely with the Department of Mental Health to transition BSH patients, when appropriate, to Department of Mental Health hospitals for care."
MHM Services Inc., the national health care provider named in the suit, has not responded to a request for comment. The superintendent of Bridgewater State Hospital could not be reached for comment.
Dr. Igor Galynker, director of The Family Center for Bipolar Disorder at Mount Sinai Beth Israel and professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, said most patients with schizophrenia are treated effectively with medications.
"In most people, they are very good at controlling the positive symptoms, which are hallucinations and delusions and disorganization, all leading at times to violent behavior," he said.
"Seclusion is less restrictive than restraints," said Galynker, who has never treated Peter Minich. "It's really a big deal to put someone in restraints and it's very tightly regulated. You need a doctor's order, time limit, and constant monitoring."
Patients must be assessed every 15 minutes, he said, and the maximum time typically allowed in seclusion at any one time is four hours for an adult an two hours for an adolescent.
"First of all, it's damaging physically," he said of seclusion. "They can injure themselves by throwing themselves against a wall when in seclusion or by cutting the circulation in an arm by thrashing about so much when they are in restraints.
"Psychologically, it can be incredibly damaging to have lack of stimulation and sensory deprivation," Galynker added. "It causes hallucinations, even in people who are healthy."
As a child, Peter Minich was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, but he was "really artistic and athletic," his mother said. "He played soccer and hockey and was OK for a good part of his life."
But he began to show signs of mental illness around 14 or 15, his mother. said "I thought maybe, like other teenage boys, he was having a hard time because of the ADD and he was frustrated," she said.
For a time, he attended a special school. But by high school, "Things got worse and he started hearing voices," his mother said.
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized at in 2003 Harvard University-affiliated McLean Hospital. For several years, he was in and out of treatment there, until private insurance "ran out," Minich said.
In 2011, he was transferred to Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, a facility run by the Massachusetts Department of Correction and Department of Mental Health, providing residential psychiatric care. He began to engage in more aggressive behavior but was "generally lethargic," according to the lawsuit.
"Things started to go down quickly from there," she said. "He tried to kill himself. But he never really hit anybody or anything."
But between Nov. 6 and 26, 2012, Minich was accused of punching a staff member, throwing a chair at another, pushing a third person and then masturbating in front of a fourth, according to the lawsuit.
Sometimes around Dec. 7, 2012, Lemuel Shattuck Hospital staff members contacted law enforcement, requesting charges be brought against Peter Minich, even though they were "aware that Mr. Minich could not be held criminally responsible," the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit says that on or about Jan. 13, 2013, he was arrested and jailed, then placed at Bridgewater for evaluation.
Once transferred to Bridgewater, it argues, Minich's alleged crimes "could not possibly lead to incarceration even if he was convicted," his lawyer said..
Since entering Bridgewater, Minich said, her son has "regressed."
"He's on a litany of medications and supposedly had a second evaluation, but I am not sure about that," she said. "Even though I am his guardian, I don't get a lot of information."
"They have criminalized his illness. That's what they are doing," she said. "And it's unconscionable and he's not in a therapeutic environment. I know he is ill. I can live with that. But no one should be treated like an animal, locked in an isolation cage."