BOSTON — Massachusetts state prisons are violating the constitution by failing to properly care for inmates with serious mental health issues and protect prisoners in crisis from harming themselves, federal authorities said in a scathing investigative report released Tuesday.
An investigation by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's Office found troubling conditions inside Massachusetts Department of Correction facilities that authorities say has led to prisoners dying or seriously injuring themselves while on mental health watch.
"Our investigation revealed that MDOC fails to provide adequate mental health treatment to prisoners experiencing a mental health crisis and instead exposes them to conditions that harm them or place them at serious risk of harm," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the DOJ's civil rights division said in an emailed statement. "Remedying these deficiencies promptly will ensure that we protect the constitutional rights of these vulnerable prisoners and promote public safety," he said.
A Department of Correction spokesperson said the agency has already begun to address the issues raised in the report. He noted that investigators found no violations in the state's use of restrictive housing for inmates or in the geriatric and palliative medical care provided to all inmates.
"The Department remains deeply committed to the health and well-being of all entrusted to our care and fully invested in protecting their physical safety and civil rights," spokesperson Jason Dobson said in an email.
The Justice Department found that the prison system is not properly supervising inmates in mental health crisis to prevent them from harming themselves. Prison staff have failed to take away items that inmates could use to harm themselves when having a mental health crisis, authorities said, noting cases in which prisoners have had razors, batteries, and other dangerous items on metal health watch.
Prisoners with serious mental health issues are placed in "restrictive, isolating, and unnecessarily harsh conditions" for prolonged periods of time, putting them at risk of harming themselves, authorities said. Four of the eight prisoners who killed themselves in Massachusetts prisons since 2018 were on mental health watch when they died or days before they died, officials said.
"Had MDOC provided these prisoners with adequate mental health care rather than subjecting them to restrictive housing, devoid of mental health treatment, these suicides may have been avoided," investigators wrote in their report.
The Department of Correction said it has already stopped the sale of razors to inmates at several facilities.
Federal authorities allege the conditions violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. In a letter sent to the governor, federal officials said they are hoping to resolve the matter "amicably" but said the Department of Justice could bring a lawsuit after 49 days to force the state to fix the problems.
Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said the Department of Correction has cooperated with its investigation, which involved tours of prisons, interviews with hundreds of prisoners and the review of records such as incident reports.
"The conditions at MDOC facilities show how systemic deficiencies in prison facilities can compound each other and amount to constitutional violations," he said.
Elizabeth Matos, who's head of a prisoner advocacy group, said the report is "not surprising."
"A majority of the incarcerated population goes into prison or jail having suffered from trauma already. Access to mental health care is not only extremely limited inside jails and prisons, it is counter-therapeutic," Matos, of Prisoners' Legal Services said in an emailed statement.