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Massachusetts Reviewing Placement Of Mentally Ill In Prison System

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders is pledging to take a fresh look at the way the state treats those with serious mental illnesses and debilitating substance abuse problems who get caught up in the criminal justice system.

Sudders said in an interview this week with The Associated Press that the Baker administration is reviewing the population at Bridgewater State Hospital — a medium-security prison housing men involved with the criminal justice system who are diagnosed as mentally ill — to see if some should instead be in the care of the Department of Mental Health.

Sudders is also moving ahead with a plan to create beds at Taunton State Hospital for women who have been civilly committed at MCI-Framingham, even though they've committed no crimes. State law — known as Section 35 — allows a doctor, police officer, spouse, family member or guardian to ask the court to order individuals believed to be a danger to themselves or others to be involuntarily committed because of alcohol or substance abuse.

Sudders said the state first pledged to move the women out of the prison as far back as 1987. She said some of the women are struggling with both addiction and mental illnesses.

"They're coming completely out of the criminal justice system to the treatment system," Sudders said. "It's really going to happen. It's just the right thing to do."

Gov. Charlie Baker has included $5.8M in a supplemental budget proposal he filed Friday to cover the cost of transferring the women from MCI-Framingham to a Department of Mental Health facility.

Sudders said those housed at Bridgewater State Hospital fall into a number of different categories.

There are individuals sent pre-trial for competency testing; people found not guilty by reason of insanity; individuals who are convicted, then in need of intensive psychiatric treatment; individuals who are transferred from houses of corrections and jails; and individuals who are convicted, have served their sentence, and then are civilly committed.

Sudders visited the facility and has pledged to work with experts to make a determination if Bridgewater should stay under the Department of Correction all or in part.

"We are going to focus on the needs of the populations that are at Bridgewater State Hospital and who's the best agency to serve the populations," Sudders said. "If someone's convicted and then they're civilly committed — if they don't need a level of security, would the Department of Mental Health be an appropriate venue?"

"What is the best way to ensure a continuum of treatment with people with serious mental illness?" she added.

Sudders said the administration is opening 15 beds at Taunton State Hospital for women who have been civilly committed to MCI-Framingham in part because there was no other facility. She said that transfer would likely happen sometime during fiscal year that began this month.

She said the administration eventually hopes to add an additional 15 beds at Taunton.

"I was just down in Taunton a couple of weeks ago," she said. "There are actually a couple of units that are quite in good shape and I'm just going through the planning now."

June Binney, director of the Criminal Justice Diversion Project at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts, said the changes are needed. Sudders is a former board member for the group.

Binney said Massachusetts is "absolutely an outlier" compared to other state when it comes to the state prison system caring for people who are civilly committed because of mental illness.

"In any other state, most or all of the populations at Bridgewater State Hospital would be cared for by the Department of Mental Health," she said. "Any step to undo the damage done to people by asking our state prison system to care for the sickest people in the commonwealth who are struggling with mental illness or substance abuse disorders is a wonderful and long overdue reform."

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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