Mental Health Article — Keeping Mental Health Inside the DOC
In late 2016 I was diagnosed with an infection in my lower back. It was extremely painful. So much so that one day the doctor looked me straight in the face and said, “You’ll be prepared to deal with kidney stones after this kind of pain!” Which provoked a little laughter, even though it was painful to laugh.
I spent a week in the hospital before being returned to the Health Services Unit here at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.
I was put in a recovery room (cell) directly adjacent to the CO’s (Correction Officer’s) desk. The CO’s desk is roughly 10–12 feet long, and there’s three computer terminals set up intermittently along the desk, or, leading away from my cell. I had a clear line of sight into four cells directly facing the officer’s desk. A couple of these cells were, “eyeball watch (cells),” or, (Open) Mental Health Observation Cells (for lack of better terminology). If you’re on eyeball watch you’ve either made a suicide attempt, or threatened to kill yourself. These cells are almost continuously full. There are hundreds of inmates with mental health problems here at the max and the environment within this prison only exacerbate their problems.
I was up in the Health Services Unit, “on the mend,” for a couple months. During that time I had an opportunity to witness the way mental health patients, many of which are suicidal, were treated by the staff here at the max. By staff, I’m referring to CO’s, CPO’s (inmate social workers), nurses, doctors, psychologists and the psychiatrist.
The max isn’t equipped for hospice care, but the prison does it anyway. There’s only so many health services units in the M-DOC to place aging prisoners when they’re ready to die. The M-DOC wasn’t built around the idea of hospice care, they adapted as a greater need arose. Unfortunately, as a result of this, a good number of elderly inmate suffer alone in horrific conditions unable to so much as go outside. These men die alone in a germ infested room with no one to offer them an comfort. It’s really quite horrible. I think POW’s in the Vietnam War had better death bed treatment than some of these men.
I had a lot of downtime during my stay. Between reading, watching TV and sneaking peaks at monitors while screws watched YouTube videos, I saw first hand why the Massachusetts Department of Corrections shouldn’t have anything to do with administering mental health treatment to inmates.
The first words that come to kind are gross mismanagement. When you stick five hopped up CO’s in front of two 18 to 20 year old kids who just tried to commit suicide, you can only imagine where the conversation goes. To be fair, there were times when the inmates initiated these often hostile conversations. There were times when the inmates said insulting, dirty, downright awful things to the Corrections Officers. Talked about their wives, mothers, daughters…said revolting things which I won’t repeat. But these are the kids — and when you talk about young guys in the DOC you’re really talking about kids who dropped out of school when they were ten or twelve years old — and DOC Officers are trained to handle abusive language, threats and insults from inmates. It’s how you make $70K + along with a nice bene’s package and a cushy pension (with a high school education).
These men, these highly trained officers, turned 80% of these conversations into screaming matches and verbal disputes. These — excuse my crude language — pissing matches resolved nothing. And, who’s fault is it anyway? Correction’s Officers shouldn’t be tasked with babysitting mental health patients, they’re not trained therapists! Inmates who are suicide risks shouldn’t be put in harm’s way by being supervised by untrained professionals. The doctor(s) and nursing staff are already overburdened with to many patients and too few resources. Likewise, the mental health staff are always overworked and underappreciated. These people are all doing their best based on the situation provided them but the system is flawed. You can’t fit a round peg in a square hole. In order for these inmates to receive proper mental health treatment a comprehensive study must be undertaken by an independent evaluation agency. An agency in no way connected to the M-DOC. That study must then be evaluated and a plan of action must be put in place. Otherwise, the astronomically high suicide rates (for both inmates and correctional officers) here at SBCC will continue to go unchecked.
Massachusetts is one of two states in the continental United States that handles mental health services in house. It’s time to do away with the archaic notion that this is the best way to handle mental healthcare in the M-DOC and step into the 21st century. Massachusetts’s has a sordid history of burning witches, it’s past time for this witch hunt to come to an end.