The U.S. Department of Justice has determined the Massachusetts Department of Correction violated the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment by failing to provide sufficient mental health support to prisoners.
Through an exhaustive investigation of the Massachusetts DOC, the DOJ found that prisoners on mental health watch were left under-supervised, resulting in them hurting or killing themselves, according to a DOJ press release.
Further conditions and accounts showed the DOC’s “deliberate indifference” toward inmate health and safety, evidenced by the accessibility of self-injury devices like razor blades to prisoners on mental health watch, according to the DOJ report released Tuesday.
“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,” a DOC spokesperson wrote in a statement.
The DOJ found no cases of “restrictive housing” being used as means of inmate care, according to the statement.
“The Department of Correction continues to work closely with DOJ and has already begun to address the issues raised in the report and maintain the significant progress we have already made,” the statement reads.
The DOC has eliminated the sale of razor blades in facilities, held meetings to examine prisoner histories and created preventative procedures, as well as trained employees on mental health care.
Michael Cox, director of policy for Black and Pink Boston, a criminal justice organization that focuses on prisoners from marginalized demographic groups, said the organization is disappointed by the report’s findings, but is not surprised.
Cox said mental health watch, a focus of the DOJ’s investigation, is a means of solitary confinement and greatly interferes with the wellness of prisoners.
The report detailed two incidents of LGBTQ+ individuals abused under these conditions, one being that of a mentally ill transgender man whose history demonstrated that his condition worsens when placed on mental health watch.
“They did this anyway, and they gave him access to a stress ball.” Cox said. “And he was found dead with the stress ball lodged in his throat.”
The report included an instance of harassed gay man with prostate cancer and incontinence writing a suicide note to his sister. When she inquired about his status, she was told he was alive and well. He was found dead in his room the following morning.
“They should seriously consider abandoning the use of solitary confinement,” Cox said. “They should be disciplining, including termination of all of the guards and DOC personnel involved in the negligence and also providing weapons to people and encouraging people to hurt themselves.”
Cox said he believes the DOJ report should trigger reform.
“The DOJ left no stone unturned in their investigation,” Cox said. “There is just such hard-hitting evidence in that report that I think any judge would be remiss not to [rule] in favor of the Department of Justice.”
Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said while she thinks the report is “great,” she is unsure whether it will lead to change in the department.
“We’ve been litigating solitary confinement issues for decades and there hasn’t been a lot of change in the Department,” Matos said. “I hope to see change from this, but I think it really remains to be seen.”