Boston Globe Spotlights Tragedy of Prisoners’ Unmet Mental Health Needs

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November 25, 2016; Boston Globe

The Boston Globe’s nationally recognized Spotlight Team has released an in-depth study that reveals the extreme challenges of mentally ill people in prison. The study focuses on one family in the Boston area. The study asserts that “mental health and substance abuse treatment for many Massachusetts inmates is chronically undermined by clinician shortages, shrinking access to medication, and the widespread use of segregation as discipline.” This finding echoes national trends and reinforces calls for new state policies to better support this vulnerable population.

The Globe’s Spotlight Team is the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative journalist unit in the U.S. It won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its investigative reporting of sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. This story became a movie that won the Academy Award for both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay last year. One of the journalists behind this current study, Michael Rezendes, worked on the abuse story.

The Globe uses the experiences of Nick Lynch and his father, Kevin Lynch, to ground the investigation. For Nick Lynch, a conviction of armed robbery in 2004 resulted in an eight-year sentence in a series of state facilities—including Souza­Baranowski Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison. The Globe highlights Lynch’s turbulent childhood. He had been diagnosed with ADD and Bipolar Disorder, which led to drug use and later an expulsion from high school on a drug charge. In prison, Lynch experienced resistance in getting support for his substance abuse and mental health problems. “He says, he got little mental health care, and faced skepticism from clinicians about his symptoms, which he says included bouts of crippling anxiety and paralyzing depression” according to the Globe. As a result of a suicide attempt in prison, Lynch finally received the medication that “quieted his anger.”

As a broader context for Lynch’s case, the Globe provides surprising statistics about offenders that have mental health and addiction problems. Relying on Massachusetts Department of Corrections data from 2012, the Globe relays that 37 percent of inmates who leave state prisons with mental illness are incarcerated again as opposed to 30 percent for those without mental health problems. Another state study shows that for inmates with addiction issues, “about half are convicted of a new crime within three years.” The Globe adds, “Inmates with a ‘dual diagnosis’ of addiction and mental illness, like Nick Lynch, do the worst of all, national studies show.” A 2016 study produced by the CDC entitled the National Survey of Prison Health Care was an attempt on the federal level to provide a national perspective on how state prisons assess and treat health problems—including mental health—for 45 participating states.

In Massachusetts, the issue of devoting funds for mental health care within prisons has been “limited by longtime public and legislative indifference,” according to the Globe. The study points out that “Some national studies have ranked Massachusetts above average for prison health care spending,” but adds that “the department’s own consultants concluded in 2011 that it could not fairly be compared with other states because of its unusually extensive—and expensive—mandate.” Spending on mental health care in Massachusetts prisons “declined from $18.9 million in fiscal 2013 to $15.2 million in fiscal 2014, according to DOC data.” To the detriment of offenders such as Nick Lynch, that savings was made up for by a 35 percent cutback on prescription medications per inmate between 2010 and 2015. Another side effect is that access to psychiatrists has been made much more difficult for inmates. A for-profit company called Massachusetts Partnership for Correctional Healthcare oversees mental health care in the state’s institutions.

Nick’s release from prison in 2012 with “a few plastic packets of pills, bundled together with rubber bands, (and) an appointment at a treatment center that his dad says he had contacted” turned out not to be enough. He was arrested again in 2012 and in 2015 and is currently serving a three-to-four-year sentence. With Nick incarcerated again, the Globe notes that his father Kevin has earned a degree in healthcare policy and started the Quell Foundation to support mental health education. It would be great to think that by the time Nick is released, there will be a stronger statewide safety net to support him.—Anne Eigeman