Troubled Over Bridgewater

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  September 13, 2010

The ongoing plan to convert OCCC into a facility specializing in mentally ill patients was conceived in response to news in 2008 that the DOC population had hit an unprecedented 12,000 inmates — 44 percent over capacity, well over the nationwide average of just seven percent. In addition to calling for reform in mandatory-minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders, Clarke, the DOC commissioner, sought to cut costs by consolidating mental-health services in Bridgewater. Contacted by the Phoenix for comment on the transition, DOC spokesperson Diane Wiffin said the move "allows for the creation of a therapeutic environment, enhanced training for staff, specialized modalities for treatment, concentration of clinical staff, and coordination with expert resources at [the adjoining] Bridgewater State Hospital. A new management team has been installed, training is ongoing, and a population shift is underway, with the expectation of completion in the fall."

But reform advocates, including those at Prisoners' Legal Services, say their clients tell a different story. And a former high-level DOC administrator tells the Phoenix, bluntly: "They had no plan, and if they say that they have one now, it's not something that was drafted beforehand."

Plan or not, suicide remains a serious issue throughout the DOC.In 2006, the department commissioned an independent study in response to the more than 3200 suicide attempts and self-inflicted injuries in Massachusetts prisons in the previous decade. The final report — ordered by former DOC commissioner Kathleen Dennehy, written by suicide-prevention expert Lindsay Hayes, and released in early 2007 — found systematic flaws in everything from guard training to cell design, and singled out OCCC for having just one night-duty officer responsible for checking multiple units where at-risk convicts were housed. In December 2007, a Boston Globe investigation revealed that suicides in commonwealth penitentiaries were "coming at an alarming pace, roughly triple the rate in other states."

These days OCCC is double-bunking mentally ill prisoners — a new arrangement that has both officers and reform advocates extremely nervous. The DOC laid off more than 40 mental-health workers in 2009. The consensus among observers is that the department is remiss in its duty to adequately train officers to deal with psychologically troubled prisoners.

Wiffin, the DOC spokesperson, describes recent Old Colony suicides as "specific to the individual" rather than institutionally motivated. But in July, the DOC re-hired Hayes to follow up his 2007 report. The state had little choice in the matter; recent developments have made headlines beyond the prison news network.

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BEHIND THE FENCE: Lately, Old Colony has been in the spotlight, but for all the wrong reasons. The facility is troubled by allegations of racism, sexual misconduct, and egregious human-rights violations. And in a state where convicts reportedly kill themselves at more than three times the national rate, in 2010 OCCC is the facility where prisoners are most likely to commit suicide.

Wall of silence
In December 2006, an officer named Joel Weinrebe was terminated from his employment at OCCC. Court documents show that events leading up to the 10-year veteran's dismissal included a melee from two years earlier, when Weinrebe dragged his girlfriend by her hair down a flight of stairs and beat her on the cold concrete outside his Brockton home. When police arrived on the scene, Weinrebe, despite being on suspension from the DOC at the time, was carrying a loaded gun and wearing his department-issued badge around his neck. Six months later, he was arrested for the incident and charged with possession of a class D controlled substance, carrying a dangerous weapon, and domestic assault and battery. Weinrebe's girlfriend later dropped the domestic-violence charges, but he didn't get his job back.

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  Topics: News Features , Suicide, Harold Clarke, Gloria Fox,  More more >
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