Massachusetts Sends Men to Prison for Addiction Treatment, But Not Women. A Lawsuit Says That’s Discriminatory

Massachusetts is the only state in the U.S. that sends people to prison for addiction treatment, and it only does so for men—an unconstitutional and discriminatory policy, a class-action lawsuit filed in Massachusetts state court earlier this month claims.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 10 anonymous plaintiffs by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, says men who are civilly committed by courts to drug addiction treatment are instead shipped to state prison facilities, where they endure degrading treatment that often leaves them worse off than when they arrived.

“While incarcerated, men committed under Section 35 experience appalling conditions of confinement and only minimal treatment,” the lawsuit says. “Correctional officers treat them like criminals, routinely humiliate them, refer to them as ‘junkies,’ and make other degrading comments. Many, if not most, emerge from prison traumatized by the experience and even more vulnerable to relapse and overdose.”

Massachusetts, like a majority of states, allows family members and police, with a court’s approval, to involuntarily commit someone for addiction treatment under Section 35 of the state’s laws. Most of the thousands who are civilly committed spend 30 to 90 days in treatment at a facility run by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

However, as opioid addiction surged in the state over the last decade, Massachusetts began putting civil commitments in the hands of the state department of corrections, a practice that civil libertarians and criminal justice groups argue has terrible effects on someone’s chances of recovery from addiction.

A 2017 Massachusetts Department of Public Health report on opioid abuse found that, “compared to the rest of the adult population, the opioid-related overdose death rate was 120 times higher for persons released from prisons and jails.”

In response to a lawsuit brought by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and several other groups, Massachusetts changed its policies in 2016 to require that women be sent to actual addiction treatment programs. However, each year more than 2,000 men are still being incarcerated in Massachusetts Department of Correction facilities—a policy the lawsuit says “constitutes unlawful gender discrimination.”

“Women committed under Section 35 must be sent to inpatient treatment facilities in the community even if the committing court finds that they need a secure facility,” the lawsuit argues. “By contrast, men go to prison when there are no other available Section 35 treatment beds, regardless of their actual security needs. In short, men are punished for their alcohol and substance abuse disorders while women ‘receive treatment, support, and recovery services in a dignified medical setting.'”