No Exit / The Wandering Angel

September 13, 2016; WWLP-TV (Western Massachusetts)

In 1967, filmmaker Frederick Wiseman filmed a documentary called Titicut Follies about Bridgewater State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts. The film would soon become notorious, but not because everyone flocked to see it. In fact, it was banned for years.

In 1968, after two showings in New York, Massachusetts Superior Court judge Harry Kalus ordered all copies of the film pulled from distribution and destroyed. Many believed that the censorship had less to do with trying to protect the rights of the inmates, who were often filmed naked even while being taunted and abused by guards, and more to do with the need to cover up the terrifying human rights abuses it exposed. (The film can be viewed here.)

Over the years, the institution has taken on a more hybrid stance, badly spanning the mental health and “corrections” roles, but it remains in the same location. Now, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has called for another round of reforms that will emphasize treatment over incarceration. In fact, no guards will be allowed to interact with the inmates at all, and the state plans to put the contract for managing the institution out for bid. This, to us, sounds like a bad plan.

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, the Secretary of Public Safety and Security, Dan Bennett, said to the Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, “The goal in this case is to take Bridgewater State Hospital and transition it from what it is now into more of a mental health facility.…This has been what Bridgewater State Hospital should have been all along.”

Bennett calls this “a bold step that Governor Baker instructed me to take almost a year ago.” But is it really so bold? After all, regardless of the changes, the facility remains a Department of Corrections facility, as Bennett reminds us.

Prisoner advocates had pushed to transfer control of the facility to the Department of Mental Health. “The need is for large, systemic change,” said Christine Griffin, executive director of the Disability Law Center. She said, “We’re looking for [the Department of Mental Health] to be in there in a much bigger way.” The DLC called for the institution to be placed in receivership in June after it finished an investigation into a case where an inmate died after having ingested large amounts of toilet paper.

But other advocates might argue the entire site should be abandoned, tortured ghosts and all, to make an entirely new start from a brand new set of precepts. In this case, the symbolism would help the skeptics among us believe that real change is going to be required by the state, that there would be no going back.

Jim Pingeon of Prisoners Legal Services said he has been visiting Bridgewater for thirty years, and his reaction to it is unchanged over that period. “How can you possibly expect someone with a serious mental illness to get better in a place like this? It is a prison that’s called a hospital. But it’s not a hospital.”

Pingeon also points out that for the fifty inmates who will be transferred to another prison, the shift will be akin to “taking them out of the frying pan and throwing them into the fire.” Pingeon alleges that correctional officers, acting out in “frustration” or “sadism,” encourage patients to kill themselves.

Now, Bennett disputes that “100 percent.” Still, why do we feel we have heard this before?—Ruth McCambridge