Advocating for Prisoners With Mental Health Issues in Jails and Prisons: Lessons learned from recent efforts in Massachusetts Prison Legal Services, Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, and the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project

Jennifer Honig, J.D., LaToya Whiteside, J.D., and Joel Thompson, J.D.

Prisoners with mental health histories have historically faced challenges in accessing appropriate health care treatment in county and state correctional facilities. In light of a growing recognition that correctional facilities are largely populated with people with mental health concerns, advocates have been working on many fronts to require that facilities provide quality mental health care. In this panel, legal advocates discuss the range of efforts in Massachusetts to to expand and improve treatment options.

Learning objectives:

  • Discuss the status of legislative and litigation strategies in Massachusetts to protect people with serious mental illness in county and state correctional facilities from solitary confinement, and the challenges in reaching this goal;
  • Review advocacy to press correctional facilities to acknowledge a prisoner’s mental health status in the disciplinary process and in consideration for parole; Recount litigation and ongoing monitoring to improve the quality of care and eliminate unnecessary and illegal restraint and seclusion at Massachusetts’ prison for people with mental illness, addressing the successes and ongoing issues in this advocacy;
  • Present on the importance of substance use treatment for many prisoners with mental illness. Discuss the need for a paradigm shift so that substance use is viewed as a disease and medically-assisted treatment is provided. Panelists will describe recent lawsuits to ensure the provision of methadone treatment and to encourage the inclusion of medically-assisted treatment for those with opioid addictions;
  • Highlight a range of concerns that advocates should keep in mind when doing this work such as ensuring that: remedies integrate mental health and substance abuse treatment; patient privacy is protected; solutions focus on diverting prisoners from solitary confinement, maximum security, and incarceration entirely; and stigma and discrimination are recognized as extant and needing our ongoing attention.