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I-Team: Men With Substance Use Disorders Sent To Prison For Treatment

BOSTON (CBS) - It can give desperate families a way to get help for their loved one suffering with the pain of addiction, it's known as Section 35. It is a legal process that allows families, the police, doctors and others to petition a court to force someone into treatment for up to 90 days. It is usually used in cases where there is a likelihood the person could seriously harm themselves, others or is in danger of overdosing.

It is often referred to as being 'sectioned'. And for some, that means going to prison instead of a rehab facility.

Mike, who lives on the Cape, says after major back surgery he became addicted to opioids and alcohol. His family, concerned that he wasn't getting help, petitioned the court to have him involuntarily committed for treatment. He tells the I-Team, "I was handcuffed in court, no different than you see any other criminal charged with a crime."

But Mike isn't a criminal and wasn't charged with a crime. He says he thought he would be going to a detox and rehabilitation center, instead he was shackled with other men in a sheriff's van and taken to a prison-run drug and alcohol treatment program, called MASAC – The Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center run by the Department of Correction in Plymouth.

Mike told the I-Team he was sent to prison for substance abuse treatment (WBZ-TV)

Mike tells WBZ, "I can see the barbed wire and fencing and knew I was inside a jail."

There, Mike says he was strip searched, given an orange jumpsuit and an inmate ID. Known only by his number, Mike says he was not given any medication to help him detox during his 30 days behind bars. And while he takes responsibility for his addiction, he tells WBZ punishment is not the answer.

Massachusetts is the only state that sends men, and just men, suffering with substance use disorder to prison without having been charged with a crime.

The reason? The I-Team has learned that the state has just one health department licensed inpatient program for men who have been civilly committed. And with not enough beds to meet the demand, a majority of men, end up in treatment behind bars.

For Mike, who had never been in jail before, it was traumatizing.

In a statement the Department of Correction said: "MASAC delivers medically monitored detoxification and medication assisted treatment to civilly-committed patients in a safe, structured environment. In addition to highly qualified clinicians, MASAC provides counseling, therapy, case management planning, education, and support groups that allow patients to participate actively in their recovery and regain control of their lives upon their return to the community."

Representative Ruth Balser says the state stopped sending women to jail for treatment years ago. Balser has spent her career fighting for gender equality and calls this discrimination. She filed a bill to outlaw the practice for men. "Addiction is an illness not a crime," she said, noting that Massachusetts is the state that led the way in universal health care and should make sure people who are suffering from addiction can get the services they need in a health care facility and not a jail.

Prisoners' Legal Services is also demanding change. In a class action lawsuit brought by 10 men, it claims the policy discriminates against men and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to Attorney Elizabeth Matos, about 2,000–3,000 people a year are civilly committed under Section 35 and many are committed multiple times. She calls the program behind bars ineffective.

For Mike, who had never been convicted of a crime or in jail before, the stigma of having been classified as an inmate has been hard to overcome.

He told the I-Team he did not get better after leaving the program. He said addicts need their self-esteem to be rebuilt not destroyed. He tells WBZ, the program in prison, "it just breaks you emotionally, that's what happened to me."

The departments of Correction and Public Heath both had no comment on the lawsuit or the proposed legislation. Last July a state commission on Section 35, recommended prohibiting the state from sending men to prison or jail for treatment.

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