Massachusetts ACLU Sues To Keep Addicted Women Out of Prison

By McCarton Ackerman 07/07/14

The Bay State is the only one in the union that incarcerates addicts who have not been convicted of any crime.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has filed a lawsuit to stop sending drug and alcohol addicted women to prison, demanding that they instead receive treatment in an appropriate facility and are given adequate care while trying to detox.

A statute known as Section 35 allows certain authorities and family members to petition district courts to commit someone deemed a danger to themselves or others because of their drug and alcohol use. But while those who are committed are typically sent to treatment facilities in Brockton and New Bedford, they can be sent to correctional facilities in Framingham and Bridgewater if treatment options are full.

“As Governor Deval Patrick has acknowledged, we are actually the only state that incarcerates people who are suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol, who haven’t been convicted of a crime. And imprisoning people because they have a disease is wrong, and it’s also unconstitutional,” ACLU staff attorney Jessie Rossman told the News Service. She said the lawsuit is specifically focusing on women because they are often traumatized after the experience of being in prison, which is counterproductive to kicking their addictions. Thirteen civilly committed women are currently being housed at MCI Framingham.

Furthermore, their detox allegedly amounts to being “given a bucket,” while anti-addiction medications such as methadone and Suboxone are not being offered. They are housed in a large room for pre-trial inmates filled with bunk beds for up to 20 hours per day. Rossman argued that in some ways, they are actually treated worse than prisoners because they are not given access to the amenities most inmates have.

“They do not have access to the library. They do not have access to the chapel. They do not have access to any of the treatments, the drug programming treatment,” she said. “They are issued a prison uniform. They are issued a number, and then they are subject to disciplinary sanctions. They are treated like prisoners because they are in prison.”

Heather Nicholas, a spokeswoman for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, said they were taking the lawsuit and accusations seriously. Patrick’s budget proposal for next year reportedly will “include additional funding to significantly increase the number of treatment beds within the Department of Public Health available for individuals who are civilly committed and others requiring substance abuse treatment.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.