Massachusetts Sends Men to Prison for Addiction Treatment, But Not Women. A Lawsuit Says That's Discriminatory



Massachusetts is the only state in the U.S. that sends people to prison for addiction treatment, and it only does so for men—an unconstitutional and discriminatory policy, a class-action lawsuit filed in Massachusetts state court earlier this month claims.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 10 anonymous plaintiffs by Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts, says men who are civilly committed by courts to drug addiction treatment are instead shipped to state prison facilities, where they endure degrading treatment that often leaves them worse off than when they arrived.

"While incarcerated, men committed under Section 35 experience appalling conditions of confinement and only minimal treatment," the lawsuit says. "Correctional officers treat them like criminals, routinely humiliate them, refer to them as 'junkies,' and make other degrading comments. Many, if not most, emerge from prison traumatized by the experience and even more vulnerable to relapse and overdose."

Massachusetts, like a majority of states, allows family members and police, with a court's approval, to involuntarily commit someone for addiction treatment under Section 35 of the state's laws. Most of the thousands who are civilly committed spend 30 to 90 days in treatment at a facility run by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

However, as opioid addiction surged in the state over the last decade, Massachusetts began putting civil commitments in the hands of the state department of corrections, a practice that civil libertarians and criminal justice groups argue has terrible effects on someone's chances of recovery from addiction.

A 2017 Massachusetts Department of Public Health report on opioid abuse found that, "compared to the rest of the adult population, the opioid-related overdose death rate was 120 times higher for persons released from prisons and jails."

In response to a lawsuit brought by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and several other groups, Massachusetts changed its policies in 2016 to require that women be sent to actual addiction treatment programs. However, each year more than 2,000 men are still being incarcerated in Massachusetts Department of Correction facilities—a policy the lawsuit says "constitutes unlawful gender discrimination."

"Women committed under Section 35 must be sent to inpatient treatment facilities in the community even if the committing court finds that they need a secure facility," the lawsuit argues. "By contrast, men go to prison when there are no other available Section 35 treatment beds, regardless of their actual security needs. In short, men are punished for their alcohol and substance abuse disorders while women 'receive treatment, support, and recovery services in a dignified medical setting.'"

Massachusetts opened a new facility in 2017 for men who are civilly committed for addiction. It's run by the state Department of Correction, surrounded by razor wire, and deep in the woods. The patients, none of whom have been convicted of a crime, are watched over by correctional officers. They wear orange jumpsuits with "D.O.C." on the back.

A Boston Globe investigation that same year reported many of the same problems as the recent lawsuit:

The Globe interviewed seven former Plymouth patients and three parents of patients who all gave nearly identical accounts of unsanitary conditions, verbally abusive correction officers, and short, perfunctory meetings with counselors who provided little to no therapy. Some patients said that when they complained about the conditions they were moved into isolation cells without toilets or running water.

There are also safety concerns. At least one rape and one serious assault have occurred at the Plymouth facility in its first half-year in operation, court documents show.

A Mother Jones investigation in 2018 found much of the same. Patients reported being mocked by correctional officers and denied medical care. Addiction treatment or therapy was sparse to nonexistent, they said.

A mother recently told the Boston Globe that her son was placed in solitary confinement for five days while committed and denied his medication.

Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, says the civil liberties group's lawsuit challenged the conditions of women who were civilly committed, "but it was obvious from the way we drafted the complaint that we didn't think it was lawful to imprison men, either."

"What's so striking about the legislative fix is that as is that they changed the law with respect to women to improve their situation, but not men," Segal says. "Even if we were wrong about imprisoning people for civil commitment, it's obviously illegal to treat men and women differently in this way. Right from the moment they passed this legislative fix, it was unconstitutional."

A bill is pending in the Massachusetts state legislature that would move all men committed under Section 35 outside of the department of corrections.

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

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  1. Women make up only 8% of the prison population. Come on gals, shouldn’t you be working to get that number up to 50%?

      1. Penal equity.

        1. Heh, you said “penal”

          1. Are the babes suffering from “penal envy”?

            I bet that if we tried really-really-REALLY hard (and that would get me really-really-REALLY hard!), then we could find a bunch of expert shrinks who would, for a mere $800 an hour, professionally examine the prisoners to see if they suffer from “penal envy”!!!

            I do ‘fess up that I suffer from “parasite envy”, myself… HOW do I becum an over-paid parasite?!?!

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    1. Come on gals, shouldn’t you be working to get that number up to 50%?

      You say this like men shouldn’t be the least bit obligated to shiv, bludgeon, hang, and strangle their numbers down closer to even. You bigot.

    2. Come on ladies, break through that razor wire ceiling!

    3. We won’t be able to call ourselves a civilized society until ALL of us are in prison.

      1. Reminds me of an episode of Gilligan’s Island, where all seven castaways wind up in the island’s makeshift jail. After that, they sensibly abandon the idea of a jail and of a formal government for the island.

    4. #EndThePrisonGap

  2. I’m unaware of all of Mass. correctional commitment policies, but if they’re like IL’s you left out some of the more Kafka-esque aspects. You can “commit yourself” but not “uncommit” yourself. Your commitment for potentially committing a dangerous crime can and does exceed the standard punishment for having been guilty of committing that crime, possibly several-fold. You can be committed for your potential to have committed a dangerous crime, released, and still be compelled to present as a sex offender despite never having been convicted of a crime. Men routinely die in prison after decades of imprisonment and not having been convicted of a crime.

    The fact that women publish articles about duly-convicted pregnant female inmates (in some states) being kept in shackles during pregnancy is laughable.

      1. More than stated considering that many of the men here in IL who wind/wound up civilly committed were offered it as a lesser sentence when facing sexual assault/buyer’s remorse charges.

        Didn’t force her to do anything against her will but didn’t get her explicit consent? Spend a few weeks in rehab learning how to avoid putting women in that situation in the future and all will be forgiven… just testify against yourself. A decade of effective incarceration later, a class 1 felony rape conviction with a 4 year minimum sentence seems like a deal.

        It’s like dreaming up the legal trick and concurrent punishment you would wish on Harvey Weinstein and then offering it selectively to guys more like Aziz Ansari (or maybe more like Ray Rice).

    1. The fact that greater outrages exist does not mean that (relatively) lesser outrages should be ignored. And don’t you mean “during labor” rather than just “during pregnancy”?

      1. The fact that greater outrages exist does not mean that (relatively) lesser outrages should be ignored.

        So not much of a better that 10 go free than 1 innocent man be punished type are you? That you argue in defense of convicted felons receiving relatively minor mistreatment transiently against innocent people being jailed unjustly speaks volumes about your character.

        And don’t you mean “during labor” rather than just “during pregnancy”?

        No. Or at least, not necessarily. The majority of states that prevent pregnant women from being shackled don’t stipulate with regard to labor. C.J. Ciaramella’s last article was about a woman who was several (6?) mos. along and fell getting off a prison bus while in shackles. At no point subsequent to the fall did she receive anything resembling reasonable medical care and she was in jail for defrauding pregnant women, but as long as we all pretend that shackles for women are the real issue I guess everything’s OK, right?

  3. It sounds like there’s more than sex discrimination involved here, that is, it’s not simply that women got some arbitrary benefit which men were denied.

    I would think that if someone hasn’t been convicted of a crime he should go to criminal prison. Compulsory treatment is one thing – if it’s *actual treatment* and the person has truly forfeited their responsibility and endangers themselves or others. But if you want to put the person in prison, then a criminal trial would seem to be the way to go.

    1. Yeah, yeah, yeah. As long as we remain human (Homo sapiens sapiens is such an embarrasingly self-congratulatory scientific name for the species), men will be more disposable than women. The rate of human (mammalian, really) reproduction depends linearly on women (females), but there’s probably a power-law distribution of men’s (males’) contribution, i.e. 20% of men/males are able to sire 80% of the offspring. Or the ration may be even more skewed.

      Have you ever read Roy Baumeister’s essay Is There Anything Good About Men?

      (I enjoy reading your comments, BTW.)

      1. Baumeister wrote a whole book on it:
        Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men

        Bought it at amazon. It’s available on Kindle. Annoyingly, most of his books aren’t.

        Besides the disposability of men, he makes an evolutionary argument for women having the caring values that work at a family level and men having the justice based values that work on a societal level.

        Women intrafamily, Men interfamily

  4. The War on Men continues

  5. Massachusetts Sends Men to Prison for Addiction Treatment, But Not Women. A Lawsuit Says That’s Discriminatory

    “Oh, very well. Send the women to prison too.”

    1. EndThePrisonGap!

  6. ” In short, men are punished for their alcohol and substance abuse disorders while women ‘receive treatment, support, and recovery services in a dignified medical setting.”

    Male privilege in action.

  7. We’ve long had dual legal systems: one for men, and one for women. See Patricia Pearson’s 20 yo book “When She Was Bad.” Men will choke on the many examples of female legal privilege.

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