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Rep looks to extend protections for mentally ill inmates

The State House.Derek Kouyoumjian/Metro

A state representative is pushing a bill that would extend certain protections for mentally ill prisoners in Massachusetts.

In May of this year, State Rep. Ruth Balser, D-Newton, introduced a bill that would continue a set of Department of Correction rules requiring anyone sent to solitary confinement in the state to be evaluated for mental illness.

The bill cleared a hurdle this week, with House legislators giving the initial go-ahead to the proposal.

According to current regulations, prisoners deemed mentally ill must receive care at a residential treatment facility instead of going to solitary.

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Balser wants to make sure that the rule, set to expire next spring, continues in Massachusetts prisons.

Without the legislation the required evaluations would cease. Sending a mentally ill inmate to solitary could worsen their condition, Balser told Metro.

“They could get really sick,” Balser said. “When they’re sent to residential treatment facilities they do much better.”

According to Howard Trachtman, a local mental health advocate, a mentally ill prisoner could demonstrate behaviors viewed as disruptive in the jail setting and get sent to solitary if they were not screened properly.

“Someone with schizophrenia, for example, might have trouble understanding commands,” Trachtman said.

Trachtman said the legislation is important because solitary confinement “is bad for anybody but it exacerbates mental health problems.”

“It’s much better to get people mental health programming,” he said.

Balser said she is confident the bill will win approval from both the House and Senate and be presented to outgoing Gov. Deval Patrick for his signature before the end of the month. The Department of Correction, she said, supports the bill.

 
 
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