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A Miracle of Collaboration

How state agencies worked together for mental health and corrections reforms at long-troubled Bridgewater State Hospital.

Photograph by Danielle Rivard

Bridgewater State Hospital, a state medical facility for male inmates suffering from a mental illness, was long considered one of Massachusetts’s most shameful institutions. The consistent and excessive use of seclusion and restraints on patients was the primary reason why. A few years ago, Governor Charlie Baker tasked Secretary Daniel Bennett of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and Secretary Marylou Sudders of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services with reforming the facility. The two secretaries worked together for more humane conditions and to replace the corrections officers with trained staff from a private company, Correct Care. Since the change took place in early 2017, there has been a 99 percent reduction in seclusion and a 98 percent reduction in restraints.

Bennett and Sudders sat down with moderator BC social work professor Tiziana Dearing to discuss this recent success during a Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy event at BC Law titled Criminal Justice & Mental Health in Massachusetts: Collaborations & Challenges.

The interactions between the two panelists revealed a respectful relationship that they said exemplified the type of inter-department coordination encouraged by Governor Baker. Bennett’s mastery of corrections and union relations was coupled with Sudders’ expertise in mental health matters to find a solution to Bridgewater’s long-entrenched problems.

Change management, Sudders said, proved to be a critical element for both of them.

Bennett’s piece of the puzzle was building trust with the corrections union. After decades of steady increases in inmate populations across Massachusetts, there has been a sharp drop in recent years, Bennett said. He used this trend as his major selling point to the union that officers at Bridgewater would not lose their jobs. The state was no longer training many new corrections officers because of the declining prison population, he told them, leaving room for them to be reassigned to other facilities.

Sudders, meanwhile, worked on a plan to staff the facility with individuals who had the proper training to treat mental health patients more effectively and humanely.

She said Bridgewater is an early model of what departmental collaboration can achieve, and suggested that it could be a useful approach to the opioid crisis with its closely related demands for appropriate mental health treatment and criminal justice.

Photo, from left: Daniel Bennett, Marylou Sudders, Tiziana Dearing

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