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Senator Jamie Eldridge files bill to improve mental health for incarcerated people

Danillo Sena, left, with Sen. Jamie Eldridge reading results of the Democratic Primary for the 37th Middlesex District State Representative
Danillo Sena, left, with Sen. Jamie Eldridge reading results of the Democratic Primary for the 37th Middlesex District State Representative
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BOSTON — State Sen. Jamie Eldridge and state Rep. Brandy Fluker-Oakley have filed legislation designed to improve the mental health care of the state’s incarcerated population.

Eldridge, D-Acton, as a senator and chair of the Criminal Justice Reform caucus, makes annual visits to the state’s prisons. He said those visits have informed his perspective.

“One of the things that I will just never forget is going to one of the solitary units at the Souza-Baranowski maximum security prison in Shirley and Lancaster and speaking to a prisoner through his metal bars, who was in solitary confinement, saying that he was depressed and needed mental health support,” Eldridge said. “But he didn’t trust the mental health counselor because some of the information could pass on to the corrections officer and be used in a negative way and the care was limited.”

The proposed legislation is a direct response to a 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Justice that outlined numerous rights violations against incarcerated persons within the state’s Department of Correction.

Under the proposed legislation, prisons would be required to transport a person who says they are suicidal to an external mental health care facility. Doing so would allow them to seek independent, more-confidential care.

“Instead of diagnosing mental health conditions and providing care from mental health professionals, our system punishes people with isolation. Holding someone in isolation is traumatizing under any circumstances, and subjecting individuals in mental health crises to these conditions compounds existing trauma and is inhumane,” Fluker-Oakley, D-Boston, said in a statement.

Prisons and jails will also be mandated to have a policy when a suicide note is written so there is an immediate response.

Eldridge’s proposal also looks at how mental health watches in the state’s prisons are handled. The bill would remove officers from watching prisoners on mental health watch if the officers violate suicide prevention policies.

“If you have a correction officer who is not properly looking after someone or getting them professional help, then they should not be involved with that person,” Eldridge said.

The proposed legislation also addresses how the state’s prisons are staffed — calling for more qualified, full-time employees and less dependence on outside contractors.

“At the end of the day, the company like any other company, is looking to continue that contract. So they may be more focused on pleasing the Department of Correction management than the incarcerated people,” Eldridge said.

In addition to supporting incarcerated people, Eldridge said the bill will help corrections officers. Correctional officers in the commonwealth have been shown to have one of the highest suicide rates in the country.

“The whole system is not working for anyone,” Eldridge said. “In Massachusetts, both the prisoners and the corrections officers have among the highest suicide rates in the entire country.”

Eldridge said the state’s prisons are the largest provider of mental health care, despite the “underwhelming” services they provide. He cited 36% of men and 81% of women in Massachusetts’ prisons have open mental health cases and feels the current setup “exacerbates” those issues.

While this legislation is designed at improving conditions for the prison population, Eldridge said he recognizes there is much more that must be done on the mental health care front.

He told the story of an ongoing case his office is assisting with. He said there is a minor at Nashoba Valley Medical Center in an emergency bed they are trying to get placed into a Department of Mental Health facility. It has been two months, which Eldridge calls “outrageous.”

Further compounding these issue, Eldridge said, is how insurance companies view mental health care.

“One of the real health care injustices in Massachusetts and throughout America is that there is not comprehensive mental health care because health insurance companies don’t make a profit on it compared to open heart surgery or treating a physical problem,” he said, adding he feels a “Medicare for All” approach would make the most impact.

The bill came with the support of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health.

On June 28, Eldridge testified on the legislation before the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use, and Recovery. The committee will deliberate and decide whether to report the bill favorably.