Harm Reductionist on Hunger Strike Against Alleged Civil Commitment Rights Violations

    A prominent harm reductionist is allegedly facing numerous rights violations by a Massachussetts civil commitment program housed within a jail, Filter has learned. He’s now fighting back through an ongoing hunger strike that was entering its fifth day as of January 27.

    Jesse Harvey, the founder of Church of Safe Injection and Journey House Sober Living in Portland, Maine, was voluntarily committed on December 31, 2019 to Stonybrook Stabilization and Treatment Center (SSTC), located at the Hampden County Jail, through Section 35, a Massachusetts statute that allows for the civil—not criminal—confinement of people with substance use disorders for no more than 90 days.

    Harvey, who has written for Filter, was set to be released on January 17 per the recommendation of the unit manager, according to his mother Catherine Nash. That date was crucial, she told Filter, because he would “miss school (finishing his Master’s [at the University of Southern Maine]), lose his health insurance, lose his counselor and psychiatrist and IOP [Intensive Outpatient Program] if not out by January 18th.”

    But Harvey’s release date was rejected on January 17 and “arbitrarily” pushed back by the superintendent, Nash said. His extended stay in a jail is unjustified, he argues, and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, or a violation of his Eighth Amendment right. The facility at Ludlow, where he’s currently staying, does not have a commissary or regular visiting hours—both of which are usually provided to incarcerated people.

    According to Nash, the superintendent was “murky” about her justification during their two phone calls. She gave “the reason that not enough days had been served,” Nash recounted, pointing out that the statute states no mandatory minimum.

    The superintendent also allegedly stated that Harvey had not completed a minimum proportion of classes and meetings. According to the facility’s Orientation Manual, 85 percent of classes offered must be completed in order for a committed person to be eligible for discharge. Harvey’s discharge plan confirms that he was in “Program Compliance,” having attended 87 percent of the offered groups.

    Filter attempted to reach the superintendent, the overseer of all discharges, for comment but was unable to do so by publication time.

    The Massachusetts statute regulating civil commitment authorizes facility superintendents to decide whether a person may “be released prior to the expiration of the period of commitment” if it “will not result in a likelihood of serious harm.”

    Nash outlined a back-and-forth between the superintendent and Harvey the she characterizes as retaliatory. On January 18, the superintendent re-set his original 17-day commitment period to 30 days. Nash contested the decision on a phone call. The superintendent then “punitively” increased his stay to 45 days, said Nash.

    Harvey’s commitment length isn’t unusual for SSTC—but that doesn’t mean the facility’s record is comparable to others across the state. Between January and April of 2019, SSTC held men for 49 days on average, while commitments across the state last 21 days on average.

    “The average length of stay in our program is not a mandate,” Robert Rizzuto, a spokesperson for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, told Filter. “Instead, a length of stay is determined by a client in partnership with their treatment team to determine a treatment plan that makes sense based on their specific circumstances.”

    Case managers have not worked on building his discharge plan needed for release, according to a January 27 email sent by Nick Melikian, the director of SSTC, that was obtained by Filter.

    Photograph of one of the Stonybrook Stabilization and Treatment Center facilities (Source: Hampden County Sheriff)

    Harvey launched his hunger strike on January 23. He filed an internal complaint and is preparing for litigation upon release, according to Nash, but seemingly ran out of immediate avenues for recourse.

    “He put in a request to file suit against the State with the ‘inmate lawyer.’ But when he last met with this lawyer, it was abundantly clear that the lawyer will not help anyone get out earlier than however long the facility arbitrarily chooses to hold them,” said Nash. Filter was unable to contact the lawyer.

    Since hunger-striking, Harvey alleges First Amendment violations, claiming that SSTC staff threatened to penalize him if he didn’t eat—an action he considers to be in violation of his right to freedom of expression.

    “SSTC and the sheriff’s department never penalize someone for choosing to engage in a hunger strike. Instead, all such instances are addressed from a medical perspective with the client’s health as a primary concern,” said Rizzuto. The program does seem to be encouraging the end of the hunger strike. “We continue to encourage/offer Jesse to eat as we do not want him to become malnourished in any way,” wrote Melikian in the email.

    Harvey is making a number of other allegations. One of them includes the violation of his medical privacy protections when SSTC allegedly disclosed to other committed people that he was on a hunger strike. “Our staff would never discuss a specific client with an entity outside the treatment spectrum without a client’s written permission,” Rizzuto responded.

    Another claim concerns the violation of his religious freedom, through effectively-mandated Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous groups, which require a belief in a “higher power.”

    “While we offer AA and NA meetings, they are in no way required to be attended by any of our clients. We understand that different approaches work for different people, and we aim to offer a wide variety of groups and programs to accommodate them,” said Rizzuto.

    Correction 1/28/2020: The superintendent rejected Harvey’s initial release date on January 17, not the 18th. Harvey himself did not appeal this decision; his mother did. Comments from the Sherrif’s Department spokesperson have been added.


     

    Photo of Jesse Harvey in April 2019 by Filter.

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