A not-for-profit prisoners' rights group is suing Massachusetts Bristol County Sheriff’s Office for holding prisoners with serious mental illness in segregation cells.
The class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday in Bristol County Superior Court, in Fall River, claims that prisoners with mental illness have been locked in cells as small as 6 feet by 9 feet for weeks or months at a time -- with little or no mental health care.
The isolation and harsh treatment, the suit alleges, has exacerbated these prisoners’ mental conditions, causing some of them to hurt themselves or become suicidal.
“Prisoners with mental illness are particularly vulnerable to the harms of solitary confinement,’’ said Bonnie Tenneriello, staff attorney for Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts, the not-for-profit that filed the lawsuit. “We’ve heard heartbreaking stories of misery from our clients in solitary. Some of them have gone so far as to cut themselves, try to hang themselves.”
The suicide rate at the Bristol County House of Corrections and Jail is twice the rate of other Massachusetts county correctional facilities, Tenneriello said, and three times the suicide rate for jails nationwide.
The plaintiffs in the suit – who also are represented by Massachusetts’ Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee --- allege the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office violated the constitutional rights of these prisoners to be free from cruel or unusual punishment. They complaint seeks to permanently bar the correctional facilities from placing prisoners with mental illness in segregation.
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson said the suit is “frivolous” and the complaint “riddled with inaccuracies.”
“Obviously the people that filed this lawsuit don’t understand the inmates in our facility are constantly manipulating the system to try to get into our segregation unit,’’ Hodgson said. “And they obviously been manipulated themselves when I they were told they weren’t getting these various services and the kinds of things they claim.’’
Hodgson said that one prisoner tries to get sent to segregation as a drug-seeking ploy, so he can have access to inmates on medication.
The Bristol County House of Corrections and Jail is nationally accredited by several associations, Hodgson said, including the National Commission on Corrections Health Care.