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Mass. prison changes aim to reduce recidivism

BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick is unveiling a series of changes to Massachusetts’ criminal justice system, including a renewed focus on substance abuse treatment, limits on the use of restraints on mentally ill inmates and a ban on the shackling of pregnant prisoners while in labor.

The changes are part of a series of initiatives outlined by Patrick on Thursday designed to reduce recidivism in Massachusetts by 50 percent over the next five years.

Patrick said the effort to successfully prepare inmates to re-enter society must begin the moment they enter prison by providing more educational and training programs. He also pointed to “step-down” programs designed to let some inmates complete their sentences at county-based houses of corrections to better prepare them for life in the community and avoid troubles that could send them back to prison.

“We think there is a more pragmatic, more effective and most efficient way to think about criminal justice,” Patrick said.

He said another focus of the recidivism initiative is to treat substance abuse more like a health problem than a criminal issue.

Patrick pointed to a new substance abuse recovery program using naltrexone, a medication designed to help individuals recover from opioid or alcohol dependence. The program is designed to continue after an inmate is released with follow-up injections and counseling.

He said other steps aimed at tackling substance abuse problems include expanding detox and clinical stabilization services, adding 64 detox inpatient beds and creating a central intake to match individuals to treatment facilities.

Patrick said he’s also setting aside an additional $1 million for training programs to help law enforcement officials learn how to de-escalate and properly handle people with mental health issues. His fiscal year 2015 budget also proposes doubling the number of mental health specialty courts that can help divert individuals away from incarceration and into treatment programs.

The goal of limiting the use of restraints on mentally ill inmates only as a last resort follows the death of Joshua Messier, a 23-year-old diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, after a scuffle with guards at Bridgewater State Hospital in 2009. A surveillance video showed two guards pressing down on Messier’s back while he was seated on a bed with his hands cuffed behind him.

Patrick is also calling for a renewal of the state’s Sentencing Commission to ensure that sentencing laws are up to date in Massachusetts.

In calling for a ban on the shackling of pregnant prisoners while in labor, Patrick noted that Department of Correction policy already prohibits the practice.

He said the DOC will issue emergency regulations designed to extend the prohibition to all facilities. While the Department of Correction controls state prisons, each county jail has its own policies regarding pregnant inmates.

Activists have been pushing a bill that would create uniform laws for the jails and the state prison system that would prohibit the shackling of pregnant women during childbirth and post-delivery recuperation.

The bill would also set standards for the treatment and medical care of pregnant inmates, including nutrition, prenatal care and services for high-risk pregnancies.

Eighteen states already ban the shackling of pregnant, incarcerated women.