The U.S. Department of Justice is claiming that the Massachusetts Department of Correction is violating the constitutional rights of inmates in its custody, specifically those dealing with mental illness being kept on mental health watch. Jenifer McKim from the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting has been covering problems in Massachusetts state prisons and county jails. She discussed the DOJ's report with GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: I've heard of a suicide watch before, but what is a mental health watch?
Jenifer McKim: A mental health watch is pretty much what a suicide watch is. These are prisoners who are at risk for suicide or for self-harm. They're put in what they call a suicide resistant type of cell. They're generally asked to strip of all their clothing and put on a tear-proof smock or johnny. And basically nothing is in that cell except the toilet and a cot. They're basically trying to limit anything with which they can hurt themselves. The other thing is, according to this report, they would have generally a 10 to 15 minute assessment a day, basically done through the crack in the door of their cell.
Rath: An assessment from some kind of mental health professional or just someone from the prison staff?
McKim: Reportedly. Yes, correct. Not just the regular CO, but somebody who's there to check on their mental health. I'd always heard that's the type of therapy people were getting. It was hard to believe, but there it was in the study, in this report, that in fact that's how they're being asked how they're doing, through a crack in the door.
Rath: Let's get into more about these specific claims that are in the Department of Justice report. Talk us through it and your take on it.
McKim: For me, to be reading this report and hearing all the allegations that I've heard from advocates and prisoners over the years about what it's like to be on mental health watch, to see it in this federal report was really quite amazing. First of all, while there is a state policy that says that really you shouldn't be in this situation for more than four days because it's so restrictive, there were people during this period that were being watched for as long as seven months or more in this type of situation. The report talks about how there were COs who actually taunted prisoners and gave them razors to hurt themselves. So very amazing findings.
Rath: Wow. You've reported on this before, particularly in the Massachusetts county jails. Talk about what the situation is like there.
McKim: This definitely resonated for me, because when we did our report on the county jails that was published in 2017, both in the Boston Globe and with GBH News, we found that while suicides had been an issue in the state prisons that people had looked at — we all remember Aaron Hernandez — in the county jails, the numbers were much higher. There were many more people dying of suicide in the county jails, even though the populations were generally the same size. So it reminded me and made me think why the feds aren't also looking in this area.
We focused on one particular man who was in a mental health watch, similar to those being discussed in this report. He talked to his wife, we listened to recordings where he talked about how he felt people were laughing at him. When he finally got removed to a single cell, he died within a few days. It's similar to the DOJ report that said that four of the eight people who had died by suicide during the period they watched had either been on mental health watch or were recently removed.
Rath: You've also recently reported that the DOJ is also investigating the Massachusetts Parole Board, for its treatment of mentally ill prisoners, right?
McKim: Yeah. When you think about first this DOJ study that shows that about 25 percent of the population in the prisons have serious mental illnesses, you just think of the widespread implications of this whole problem. We last summer at GBH News did a project related to the parole board, which helps look at people who can be released back into the community under some kind of supervision. We found people who had been approved by the parole board, including one particular man who'd been approved by the parole board and yet was not released for more than 10 years because he had mental health issues. As part of this investigation, we realized that the feds are also looking at the treatment of mentally ill folks and whether the parole board is discriminating against them.
Rath: Again, you've been reporting on this broadly for quite a while. I'm curious about the inmate rights advocates that you talk to you pretty regularly. How are they reacting to this? It must be something amazing for them to hear.
McKim: I immediately reached out to folks who were in one way not surprised, because they've been hearing this also, but then also sort of horrified to see this all in writing. I know Liz Matos from Prisoners' Legal Services is saying this is yet another reason why we really need to work on releasing prisoners, because the mental health in the system is worse now than it was, because there's been systemic lockdowns because of the pandemic and higher incidence of suicide, etc. So they're saying that this is another report that shows you why something needs to be done to reduce the population in the system.
Rath: So where do things go from here? What does this report lead to?
McKim: So basically, the Department of Justice has been working all along with the Department of Correction with their findings. And so my understanding is already they're trying to resolve some of the issues. Recommendations include not giving access to people on mental health watch instruments that will hurt them, including razors and paint chips, and giving training to the correctional officers.
The report surprisingly said that that originally COs were not being trained to deal with mental illnesses, despite the fact that they were tasked with standing outside of the cells of these mentally impaired people for days if not months on end. So better training, better accountability for the COs who are not doing what they're supposed to be doing.
Also, making it less harsh in those situations, because a lot of people say and have told advocates, listen, I don't want to go in there, because it's such an awful environment. So they won't admit to having mental illness because they don't want to be stuck in a box, in a johnny, under those types of circumstances. So the recommendation is to have assessments outside of the cell, as well as other things — maybe let them wear their clothing if they don't think it's a risk.