Bar Exams in the Pandemic JURIST Digital Scholars
DOJ investigation finds constitutional violations in Massachusetts prisons
© WikiMedia (Michael Coghlan)
DOJ investigation finds constitutional violations in Massachusetts prisons

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division released a report on its investigation of the Massachusetts Department of Correction (MDOC) Tuesday, finding numerous Eighth Amendment violations.

The notice letter states:

After carefully reviewing the evidence, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that conditions at MDOC violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, we have reasonable cause to believe that MDOC fails to provide constitutionally adequate supervision to prisoners in mental health crisis; fails to provide adequate mental health care to prisoners in mental health crisis; and uses prolonged mental health watch under restrictive housing conditions, which violates the constitutional rights of prisoners in mental health crisis.

The DOJ first revealed its intention to investigate MDOC in October 2018, and DOJ officials visited nine prisons and conducted interviews of former staff, mental health advocates, former prisoners, and family members of prisoners between April 2019 and November 2019.

The investigation revealed inadequate supervision of prisoners in mental health crisis and found that MDOC used “Restrictive Housing Units (used to punish prisoners with disciplinary infractions or hold prisoners whom MDOC determines pose an unacceptable risk to the operation of the prison)” to house these prisoners. Rather than tailor its supervision and services to the needs of the individual prisoner, MDOC “perpetuate[d] the prisoner’s crisis or even escalate[d] it” while failing to prevent self-harm and failing to “meaningfully increase therapeutic interventions for prisoners on mental health watch.”

According to the study, 24 percent of prisoners in Massachusetts live with serious mental health issues. While MDOC’s goal is to deal with mental health crises within 96 hours, 16 prisoners between July 1, 2018, and August 31, 2019, remained on mental health watch for more than three consecutive months, and seven remained on mental health watch for more than six consecutive months. Many prisoners continued to access instruments for self-harm, leading to 217 instances of cutting and 77 attempted hangings between July 1, 2018, and August 31, 2019. The report recounts several incidents in which prison officials failed to confiscate instruments of harm or provide sufficient supervision, resulting in harm to the prisoner.

Pursuant to 42 USC § 1997b(a)(1), MDOC has 49 days to correct the violations before the Attorney General may file a lawsuit under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA).