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US, Massachusetts prison officials strike mental health deal

The seal of the Massachusetts Department of Correction

Federal investigators announced an agreement with Massachusetts prison officials Tuesday designed to ensure better care for those in the custody of the state Department of Correction who are suffering from serious mental health issues.

The resolution follows the release of a scathing report two years ago by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office that found troubling conditions inside Massachusetts prison facilities that authorities said had led to prisoners dying or seriously injuring themselves while on mental health watch.

The investigation, launched in 2018, found Massachusetts did not adequately supervise incarcerated individuals in mental health crisis, did not provide them adequate mental health care, and used prolonged mental health watches under restrictive housing conditions.

Under Tuesday's deal, the state has agreed to improve policies and training related to mental health care.

The improvements are designed to ensure that those suffering a mental health crisis receive three daily mental health contacts and that support staff interact with them while they are on a mental health watch.

The agreement also calls for the development of an “Intensive Stabilization Unit” to provide treatment for those on extended therapeutic supervision who do not meet the requirements for in-patient hospitalization.

The state has agreed to provide better documentation of increasing mental health treatment for incarcerated individuals experiencing a prolonged mental health crisis. Under the agreement, the Department of Correction's mental health director will now have a role in determining the cell conditions and privileges for anyone on a mental health watch.

The 2020 report found the prison system wasn’t properly supervising inmates in mental health crisis and that prison staff had failed to take away items that inmates could use to harm themselves, including razors, batteries and other dangerous items.

Federal authorities had alleged the conditions violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins said the duty to enforce laws doesn't end with a conviction.

“We also have a duty to ensure that once someone is incarcerated and in the custody and control of a state, local or federal government, that they receive constitutional treatment and adequate mental and physical health care," Rollins said.

The agreement also provides for the appointment of an independent monitor, Dr. Reena Kapoor, to ensure compliance. Kapoor is an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine.

“The Department has been diligent, transparent, and cooperative with the DOJ to advance our shared goal of improving mental health care for those experiencing a mental health crisis,” said Massachusetts Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici. “We remain deeply committed to the health and well-being of all entrusted to our care.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division launched the investigation in 2018.