Critics who claim Bridgewater State Hospital is grievously failing the mentally ill men held there made an impassioned case for shifting oversight of the facility from the state’s Department of Correction to the Department of Mental Health at a legislative briefing Tuesday.
“It doesn’t feel like a hospital at all,” Representative Mary Keefe said. “It feels like a prison. Let’s just cut to the chase.”
Bridgewater State’s population is mentally ill men who’ve been civilly committed and who are awaiting pretrial court evaluations.
Keefe co-chairs the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, which has taken an intense interest in the hospital’s operations. Two of her legislative colleagues, State Representative Ruth Balser and State Senator Cynthia Creem, have filedbills that would shift control of the hospital to the Department of Mental Health, which they say is far more capable of meeting the acute psychiatric needs of people held there.
“That seems like it should be a no brainer,” Creem said. “Who could be opposed to that? Because those people who are in Bridgewater really need help.”
“Sadly, so many people with mental health challenges land in our criminal justice system,” Balser said. “But I feel it's very important that when they do ... they be treated with the respect that they deserve, and have their needs met as severely mentally ill people.
“At the risk of stating the obvious, the Department of Mental Health is the mental health authority of the state,” Balser added. “And therefore, it is they who should have oversight and responsibility for people that are severely mentally ill.”
The Disability Law Center, which began monitoring conditions at Bridgewater State under a court order and has continued at the state’s behest, has also repeatedly called for a shift to Department of Mental Health control.
In a series of reports, the center has, among other things, painted a damning picture of the physical environment in the hospital, citing widespread mold and infestation by insects and rodents.
The center also says inmates are repeatedly subjected to the forced administration of antipsychotic medication. Tatum Pritchard, the center’s director of litigation, described videos she’s seen of this practice as especially troubling.
“[Hospital staff] barge in … they knock the person down, the force them to lie down on their bed prone, hold them down, pull down pants to expose their buttocks, and that individual then receives multiple shots of forced medication,” Pritchard said. “That is how we are administering emergency treatment in this so-called state hospital.”
From December 2022 to June 2023, Pritchard added, that particular protocol, known as an emergency treatment order, was conducted 239 times on 106 different inmates.
In 2017, then-Gov. Charlie Baker announced a plan to improve conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital by allocating extra funding and outsourcing most care in the facility to a specialized private provider.
Donna Winant, a member of the Bridgewater Friends and Family Group whose grandson is an inmate at the hospital, said that initially, that shift seemed to improve conditions significantly.
But now, she added, in the wake of a merger that created a new provider, those gains seem to have been reversed and her grandson has declined.
“My grandson [was] a 21-year-old, physically healthy young man who was well cared for by his family,” Winant said. “Now, he’s turned into a 30 year old whose teeth have become abcessed. We’ve watched his face swell up and close up his eye.”
In its five-year capital investment plan, the Healey Administration said it will resume consideration of building a new forensic psychiatric hospital that would replace Bridgewater State Hospital and be administered by the Department of Mental Health.
At Tuesday’s briefing, Balser cast the Healey Administration as an ally in her ongoing push for reform.
“I’m very excited to be working with this new administration,” Balser said. “I’m very optimistic. This is an administration that I think we can all partner with.”
Keene noted that the state’s contract with Wellpath, the current outside care provider at the hospital, is up for renewal next year, and said that could be an fitting time to finally shift control to DMH.
A spokesperson for the Department of Correction declined a request for comment, saying the department does not comment on pending legislation.