Judge orders prison suicide records
Advocacy group sues over care of inmates
By Jonathan Saltzman, Globe Staff | August 12, 2010
A federal judge in Boston ordered a former contractor for the state prison system yesterday to provide him with the psychiatric treatment records of about 25 inmates who committed or attempted suicide while in solitary confinement from 2005 to 2007.
US Chief District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf gave the University of Massachusetts Correctional Health Program until Aug. 27 to turn over thousands of pages of mental health reviews written by therapists after the suicides and attempts. He wants to determine whether he can legally turn them over to a nonprofit advocacy group that has sued the state over the care of mentally ill inmates.
UMass Correctional Health, which is not a defendant in the suit and is a program of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, contends that federal law requires the records to remain confidential under a privilege between psychotherapists and patients. The only way the privilege can be waived, UMass said yesterday, is if the inmates, or their representatives, give permission to release them.
But lawyers for the Disability Law Center said the records are crucial to their case. The center filed a civil rights suit against the prison system in 2007 alleging that hundreds of mentally ill inmates are held in cells 23 hours a day in inhumane conditions.
“We’re seeking documents that analyze what happened,’’ Carol E. Head, a lawyer for the Disability Law Center, told Wolf during a two-hour hearing. The records, she said, might indicate whether inmates were improperly diagnosed or harmed themselves because of conditions in solitary confinement.
James A. Bello, a lawyer for UMass, called the plaintiffs’ request for the records a “fishing expedition’’ and said inmates might have committed suicide for reasons that had nothing to do with conditions in prison.
But Wolf countered that the records were relevant even if the plaintiffs have no idea what they say. It was possible, he said, the documents might contain damaging evidence, such as a comment by a mental health clinician that “if we don’t change the way we deal with prisoners in segregation with serious mental health needs, I predict the number of suicides will soar.’’
Lawyers for the Department of Correction have taken no position on the request for records and were mostly silent at the hearing.
Suicides in the state prison system have been a focus of concern for years.
In February 2007, following seven suicides the previous year, a nationally renowned suicide prevention specialist hired by the state issued a 63-page report that found serious shortcomings in the state’s handling of inmates at risk for suicide. The state immediately pledged to comply with all 29 recommendations in the report.
A Globe Spotlight Team series in December 2007 revealed deepening mental illness and misery behind the walls of the state’s prisons and identified numerous problems, including bungled background screenings of suicidal inmates, missing mental health records, and skipped security rounds by correction officers.
Although suicides fell after the state promised to comply with the 29 recommendations, they surged again this year. Eight inmates killed themselves in the first seven months of the year, a suicide rate more than four times the national average. In response, the Patrick administration announced it would rehire the suicide prevention specialist.
Few of the suicides this year occurred in solitary confinement, according to James Pingeon, director of litigation for Prisoners’ Legal Services and a member of the Disability Law Center’s legal team. But some of the inmates who killed themselves had spent considerable time in solitary confinement, including one with a history of mental illness who was mentioned in the center’s lawsuit.
The suit, which alleges that solitary confinement has caused inmates to mutilate themselves, swallow razor blades, and commit suicide, demands that the state build maximum-security residential treatment units. In late 2008, the Patrick administration signaled that it would build such units in the hopes of settling the suit out of court. But the administration shelved the plans a year later, saying the state’s finances made that impossible.
Wolf said yesterday that the state and Disability Law Center have tried to settle the dispute, and he hoped they could continue to talk, given the “high human stakes here.’’
He ordered UMass to provide complete mental health records pertaining to the 25 inmates as well as records redacting the information that the vendor says is privileged, so he can compare them.
UMass no longer provides mental health services at the state prisons, although it does provide inmates with medical services. State officials replaced UMass with another vendor for mental health services, Virginia-based MHM Services Inc.