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Massachusetts agrees to reform prison conditions for mentally ill inmates

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The crest of the United States Department of Justice is seen at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

The Massachusetts state prison system will reform how it cares for inmates with serious mental health issues and supervise prisoners at risk of harming themselves to resolve a years-long civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Justice Department on Tuesday said the Massachusetts Department of Correction entered into a settlement agreement after investigators concluded conditions at its prisons resulted in inmates on mental health watch dying or injuring themselves.

Those were the findings of a two-year investigation made public in November 2020 in a blistering report that found that the constitutional rights of prisoners were serious mental illness were routinely being violated.

The deal calls for improved policies and training that will result in heightened supervision for inmates, increased out-of-cell contact with mental health staff, and the creation of a new treatment-focused housing unit.

An independent monitor, Yale School of Medicine psychiatry professor Reena Kapoor, is tasked with ensuring compliance with the agreement, which U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins said highlighted the need for “better mental health treatment in our carceral facilities.”

“Statistics show that far too many of the incarcerated population suffers from significant mental health and substance use disorders, among other severe things,” she said.

The Department of Correction did not respond to a request for comment.

The 2020 report found that the prison system failed to properly supervise prisoners in mental health crisis and that inadequate policies and training led staff to not remove items like razors and batteries that inmates that could use to harm themselves.

The Justice Department found that the prison system’s mental health or suicide watch involved placing prisoners in “restrictive, isolating, and unnecessarily harsh conditions” for prolonged periods, placing them at risk of harming themselves.

Of the eight prisoners who had since 2018 died by suicide, the Justice Department in the 2020 report said an “alarming” four were on mental health watch and were supposed to be subject to heightened supervision.

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