Massachusetts has a civil commitment process on its books for people with substance use disorders who are deemed dangerous to themselves or others. The facilities confining these people under the state’s Section 35 statute have been scrutinized by legal advocates for alleged abuse and neglect, inadequate substance use disorder treatment, and violations of the constitutional right to due process.
In May, Filter reported on the hunger strike of harm reductionist Jesse Harvey in response to alleged violations of his rights while he was being held under Section 35 at the jail-based Stonybrook Stabilization and Treatment Center (SSTC).
Filter has now reviewed emails, obtained by Harvey through a Freedom of Information Act request, in which program leadership agree that his political protest indicated the need for more substance use disorder treatment.
“I know we spoke on the phone about this,” wrote Jenn Chase, director of classification and treatment for Massachusetts’ Department of Correction, to Nick Melikian, SSTC’s director on January 27, “but to reiterate the fact that he is on a hunger strike because he is not getting his DC [discharge] clearly shows that he is not ready to leave treatment if this is how he reacts to not getting what he wants.”
Melikian replied that he agreed, adding that “his hunger strike is now creating light headedness, dizziness etc. We want to ensure he is medically safe to discharge as well.”
When contacted for comment, Chase referred Filter to the DOC’s spokesperson, who did not comment by publication time. Filter was not able to reach Melikian by publication time. This story will be updated as necessary.
Chase was aware of clinical evaluations that seem to run counter to her claim. On January 23, the day Harvey began his hunger strike, a staff member reported to colleagues, including Melikian. Melikian emailed to Chase, that “[I] honestly [do] not have any current concerns” about Harvey, adding that “Today, he does not present to be a flight risk, seems focused on his recovery and is future oriented.”
Voluntarily committed on New Year’s Eve 2019 and initially set for release on January 17, Harvey, who is the founder of the Maine-based Church of Safe Injection and Journey House Sober Living, was protesting his extended confinement in a jail despite the civil character of his commitment—a situation he considered to be “cruel and unusual punishment,” or a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
For Harvey, the emails he obtained and shared with Filter further evidence the maltreatment he says he faced. “These emails show that they indeed took a punitive approach towards my protest, a further violation of the law, and a blatant example of why jails should not masquerade as treatment,” he told Filter.
His planned discharge date of January 17 had been delayed by Superintendent Pamela MacEachern over concerns about his mental health as well as a purported insufficiency of commitment time (there’s no statutory minimum) and completed classes (his discharge plan showed he had completed enough to be eligible for release), according to the emails. Harvey’s mother, Catherine Nash, described the superintendent’s justification as “murky” and set “arbitrarily”
MacEachern’s decision seems to have been informed by a review done by Chase, the director who later took issue with Harvey’s hunger strike. Chase urged against his initial discharge, writing in a January 17 email to Melikian that “[he]e needs to complete the program or at least be much closer and have more time in treatment,” neither of which are requirements.
“On Day 5 of my hunger strike they had broken my spirit, and forever destroyed the last 1% of trust I had in the State,” Harvey told Filter in an email, “forcing me to end my hunger strike or be stripped naked and thrown in solitary confinement with no pen, paper, or book, ‘For treatment,’ they claimed. These emails confirm what all us inmates knew—that we were in jail, not treatment, and that, as people who used drugs, we do not have the same rights.”
Photograph of Hampden County Jail by the Hamden County Sheriff’s Office via Facebook