Mentally Ill Men Allege 'Shocking' Isolation in Mass. Prison Hospital Lawsuit

Men never convicted of a crime denied reading, exercise or human contact.

May 2, 2014, 12:57 PM
PHOTO: Peter Minich’s condition has deteriorated since spending 6,300 hours in solitary confinement, according to his mother, Joanne Minich.
Peter Minich’s condition has deteriorated since spending 6,300 hours in solitary confinement, according to his mother, Joanne Minich.
Courtesy of Joanne Minich

May 2, 2014— -- Three men who were involuntarily committed to a Massachusetts prison for the mentally ill have filed a class-action suit on behalf of 150 other inmates against two state officials, alleging that they were subjected to harsh conditions of confinement that would “shock the conscience of a reasonable person.”

The three plaintiffs in the case have never been convicted of a crime, according to the lawsuit, which alleges that Bridgewater State Hospital systematically confines inmates for weeks and even months in solitary confinement without reading materials, exercise or “virtually any contact with human beings.”

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Norfolk Superior Court against Department of Correction Commissioner Luis Spencer and Department of Mental Health Commissioner Marcia Fowler, alleging that prolonged isolation is a violation of state law. Also named in the lawsuit are Robert Murphy, superintendent of Bridgewater State, the Massachusetts Partnership for Correctional Healthcare and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) officials told today, “We are reviewing the complaint closely.”

“While we cannot comment on specific patients, we can say that the use of seclusion and restraint at Bridgewater State Hospital is a clinical decision and one we view as a measure of last resort,” said Darren Duarte, a spokesman for the DOC, which operates Bridgewater State. “These clinical decisions are based on each individual’s specific mental health treatment needs.”

Department of Mental Health spokesman Julie Kaviar said today, “We have received the lawsuit and are reviewing it carefully. The Massachusetts Department of Mental Health is a national leader in behavioral health and we are committed to providing quality, safe evidence-based care and services to individuals in our inpatient and community systems.”

Officials with the Massachusetts Partnership for Correctional Healthcare, which provides mental health services to the DOC, were not immediately available for comment.

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One plaintiff, identified as 31-year-old Jeffrey Doe, has autism, an intellectual disability and schizophrenia and has been isolated for 1,700 hours since November, according to the lawsuit.

“It’s one of the worst cases I have seen in my 33 years of practice,” Roderick MacLeish, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, told today. “Obviously, this man has no impulse control and functions at an extremely low level and is really not verbal. He was charged with assault and battery – this man who has limited or no executive function. He goes to Bridgewater prison but he is clearly incompetent to stand trial and will never get convicted.”

Doe was set to go to a group home last summer when doctors at a state mental health facility reduced his medication dosage and he hit a psychiatrist in the eye, according to his lawyer.

MacLeish alleges that according to prison records, Doe was put in seclusion for infractions like being “slow in responding to interview questions.”

“He has very limited verbal skills, cannot understand directions and lacks the ability to toilet himself or even express feelings of pain when he experiences an injury,” he said. “He is often left in a cell with urine and feces.”

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Another plaintiff who suffers from paranoia schizophrenia, Felipe Zomosa, has spent more than 4,000 hours in isolation since May 2013, according to the lawsuit. In January of 2014, he was subjected to 136 hours of mechanical restraint over six days.

Zomosa was sent to Bridgewater because he “lunged” at a psychiatrist after going off his medication. “He had a driver’s license before he did this,” MacLeish said. “He lived at home.”

MacLeish said an analysis of the statistics at Bridgewater State revealed two of the plaintiffs had spent more time in solitary confinement in 2013 than all 650 patients in Department of Mental Health facilities combined. “It shows that seclusion and isolation are out of control,” he said.

The lawsuit also alleges that the use of seclusion and restraint at Bridgewater State is "100 times greater" on a patient hour basis than at five other facilities run by the Department of Mental Health.

A third, Peter Minich, was isolated 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.

Minich, 31, was placed in isolation for reasons that included “bothering other patients,” having seizures; yelling; licking the floor; having auditory hallucinations and other non-violent behavior, according to a separate lawsuit filed March 31 by his family.

"People say it's a hospital, but it's not a hospital. It's a prison," his mother, Joanne Minich told at the time. "I don't think they are helping him at all. It's torture."

He has since been transferred out of Bridgewater State and placed in another facility.

Among other things, the plaintiffs are asking for a complete overhaul of how isolation and restraint are administered at Bridgewater State Hospital, including the appointment of a monitor entitled to make unannounced visits to the facility and report back to the court. The plaintiffs also want to be transferred to a therapeutic facility not run by the DOC.

They have also asked the court to issue a permanent injunction against transferring any mentally ill individual from a DMH facility to Bridgewater, unless they have been convicted of a crime.

“It’s just unbelievable,” lawyer MacLeish said of the treatment of the mentally ill. “There are patients like this all over the country who would go to group care facilities run by the department of development services. They deal with people with behavior management problems and intellectual disabilities.

“The governor has been aware of this for months, if not years, and nothing is being done,” he said. “It is definitely in our social contract to provide services for our more vulnerable people.”

Rachael Dane Neff, a spokeswoman for the Gov. Deval Patrick, said today he "had been clear that seclusion and restraint should only be used for the most exceptional situations, and only as a measure of last resort to keep individuals from harming themselves or others. We are committed to ensuring individuals suffering from mental illness are provided the appropriate treatment in the appropriate settings.”