By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Arguing that innocent women are being treated worse than prisoners, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit Monday aiming to end the state's practice of committing drug and alcohol addicted women to a Framingham correctional facility.
"As Governor Deval Patrick has acknowledged, we are actually the only state that incarcerates people who are suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol, who haven't been convicted of a crime. And imprisoning people because they have a disease is wrong, and it's also unconstitutional," ACLU staff attorney Jessie Rossman told the News Service.
Under a statute known as Section 35, certain authorities and family members can petition a district court to civilly commit someone whose drug or alcohol use is a danger to themselves or others. They are primarily sent to treatment facilities in Brockton and New Bedford, but if there is no room there, they are housed at correctional facilities in Bridgewater and Framingham depending on their gender.
The ACLU wants the federal court to block the state from treating the women at MCI Framingham.
"Our lawsuit is focusing on women," said Rossman, who said women who are civilly committed and wind up housed with pre-trial detainees in Framingham are confused and traumatized by the experience, which she said is "counterproductive" to kicking addiction. She said according to Department of Correction numbers, "hundreds" of women have been civilly committed over the past three years, and said the term of commitment varies, can last up to 90 days and is about two weeks now on average.
"They are treated like prisoners. They are sent to the medical unit for detox - what DOC calls detox, which essentially is just you being given a bucket. And they can get over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol and Tums," said Rossman, who said they are not given medications such as methadone, Suboxone or Vivitrol, which are often part of anti-addiction treatment.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Deval Patrick said the state budget includes additional funds to increase the number of Department of Public Health treatment beds.
"This Administration takes our responsibility to provide supports for those suffering from substance abuse in appropriate settings very seriously," spokeswoman Heather Nichols said in a statement. "That's why the Governor's FY15 budget proposal and recent proposals to address the opioid addiction epidemic in Massachusetts include additional funding to significantly increase the number of treatment beds within the Department of Public Health available for individuals who are civilly committed and others requiring substance abuse treatment."
According to the administration, there were 13 civilly committed women at MCI Framingham as of this May, and the governor's proposed funding increase will be able to accommodate the number of women currently housed at the Framingham jail.
After detox in the medical unit, civilly committed women are sent to "The Mod", a large room with bunk beds where pre-trial inmates are imprisoned, Rossman said. The civilly committed women are required to stay in the Mod "upwards of 20 hours a day" and do not have some of the freedom afforded the inmates.
"They do not have access to the library. They do not have access to the chapel. They do not have access to any of the treatments, the drug programming treatment," Rossman said. Six days a week, the women are granted two and a half hours to spend in what Rossman said is "essentially an empty gravel pit" they call "the kennel," which is surrounded by a tarp-covered chain-link fence.
"They are issued a prison uniform. They are issued a number, and then they are subject to disciplinary sanctions," said Rossman. She said, "They are treated like prisoners because they are in prison."
The state has been grappling with what many are calling an epidemic of opioid addiction, and Rossman said while lawmakers have increased funding for treatment, state law continues to provide for addicts to be sent to jail if there is no room at the treatment centers.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit has the pseudonym Jane Doe, and Rossman said the ACLU is seeking to make it a class action case, which would bar the state from ever imprisoning someone solely because they have been committed for substance abuse. She declined to provide any specifics about the experience of Jane Doe, but said it was similar to many stories of women sent to the Framingham jail for substance abuse.
"In some instances they're actually being treated worse than prisoners," said Rossman. She said, "What our lawsuit is seeking to end is the unlawful practice of incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction. It's wrong. It's unconstitutional, and it must stop."
Apart from budget investments, the House and Senate are in the advanced stages of passing legislation aimed at making drug and alcohol treatment services more readily accessible for individuals who need it.