In Massachusetts we have a legal act called a “section 35” which allows a family member, or police officer, to involuntarily commit a substance abuser to a treatment facility for up to 30 days. We are fortunate to have such a process (as it is not available in many other states).
Getting a section 35 granted is not the easiest of propositions – and it should not be. You are, in essence, denying someone their civil liberty. One must arrive in court armed with evidence that the person you seek to commit is of “immediate danger to themselves or others.” If successful in convincing a judge of this fact, a warrant is then issued for the addict to appear in court. To successfully win their commitment the petitioner must then best the addict’s court appointed attorney, and convince a doctor that harm is surely imminent.
I have done this four times. I am, I suppose, a seasoned section 35’er. I am also seasoned to the flaws in the system.
Four times my child was civilly committed. But only two times did she receive any treatment. Twice there were no treatment beds available at WATC, the state supported Women’s Addiction and Treatment Center. So my daughter was handcuffed and sent to MCI Framingham. MCI Framingham is the highest level security prison for women in Massachusetts. I watched as she was dragged from the courtroom, shoeless and shackled, screaming “Mom please don’t send me there…. they will not help me! Mom please!”
Lucky for me I was able to lock her pleas into a small little compartmentalized part of my brain. A part of my brain that has been built over the years to accommodate the unpleasant lies of addiction.
However, the addict isn’t the only one who lies.
At MCI my daughter was held with women who had plotted to kill their in-laws. Women who had strangled their children. Women who had stabbed their boyfriends. Women who had committed arson. Women who had committed insurance fraud. My daughter was not guilty of a criminal offense. But she was subject to roll calls, solitary confinement and body cavity searches.
Now here’s the thing – when men are sentenced to treatment and there are no available beds, they are sent to Bridgewater Correctional Institute. Bridgewater is a minimum security prison where addiction treatment is immediately provided and is similar to that received in a hospital.
What about Framingham? Did they provide equal access to treatment services ? No, they did not. The first three days of detox are spent in a single room with up to five other women. Detoxing from heroin includes severe diarrhea, hypertension, rapid heart rate, muscle spasms so large that you are often unable to stand, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and impaired respiration that makes you feel like you are underwater. Now experience all of these things together in their most extreme form. And don’t forget you are with five other suffering women. And one toilet. And a guard who doesn’t give a shit.
This is the beginning of the MCI Framingham “treatment” plan. And also the end of it. There is no counseling. There is no medication assistance (either with detoxing or maintenance). There isn’t even an AA group to attend. Women who are civilly committed for the purposes of having their substance abuse treated are incarcerated, ignored and discharged.
So the legislature finally addressed the issue in January 2016. The scramble is now on to increase the number of acceptable treatment beds. But there shouldn’t be a scramble. The ACLU won a successful lawsuit against the state a year earlier but no discernible progress had been made.
We are told the problem is solved. But is it?
If we fix the problem should we not ask why the problem existed in the first place? Lasting change can not occur if we do not question the conditions that allowed it to flourish.
Questions that keep me confounded include the disbelief, that in 2016, we still treat men with more respect than women. Or that the prison staff themselves, year after year, found the treatment of civilly committed women acceptable. How could a judges remand for substance abuse treatment be blatantly disregarded? Are we unable to address injustice in our culture without the sword of the law? What happened to compassion? Why is a bucket and a cement floor okay? Why?