In June 2014, three groups—Prisoners' Legal Services, the Center for Public Representation and the ACLU of Massachusetts—joined with the law firm WilmerHale to file a federal class-action suit challenging the imprisonment of Massachusetts women who are civilly committed for addictions to drugs or alcohol. The suit alleges that this imprisonment violates due process and discriminates based on disability.
We brought the lawsuit on behalf of women who are imprisoned at MCI-Framingham solely because they are civilly committed under a law known as "Section 35." Under Section 35, an alcoholic or substance abuser can be civilly committed to a treatment facility if her addiction risks "serious harm." But if "suitable facilities" are unavailable, the law says that men or women can be sent to prison. In the past several years, hundreds of civilly committed women have been sent to MCI-Framingham under Section 35.
At MCI-Framingham, women committed solely under Section 35 are, in many respects, treated worse than convicted prisoners. Like other prisoners, they are strip-searched, subjected to body-cavity inspections, and deprived of their personal possessions and dignity. But unlike other prisoners, they cannot go to the prison chapel or make use of exercise equipment and other indoor facilities open to the prisoners, except for limited use of the prison library. In fact, civilly committed women at MCI-Framingham cannot even access the addiction treatment programs available to sentenced prisoners.
Massachusetts is the only state that incarcerates people suffering from addiction who have not been convicted of crimes. This lawsuit seeks to end that practice.
The Court certified the class in January 2015, and discovery is currently stayed while public officials explore the possibility of ending the practice of sending women to prison under Section 35.
In a related matter, in August 2015, the ACLU of Massachusetts joined an amicus brief authored by the Center for Public Representation in Matter of GP, a separate case regarding Section 35 before the SJC. The brief argued that all people subjected to civil commitment proceedings under Section 35 should get strong procedural protections before being committed in order to comport with constitutional due process protections.