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How Massachusetts Deals With Opioid Addicts: Jail Or Rehab?


The opioid overdose death rate is causing many states to consider forcing non-criminals into residential addiction treatment. In Massachusetts, courts civilly committed more than 6,500 people to treatment last year, so many that the state recently opened a new low-security rehab facility. But as Deborah Becker from member station WBOR reports, some say the state is in essence incarcerating people who seek help.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: After her 28-year-old son overdosed repeatedly and walked out of several addiction and mental-health treatment programs, Patty Vehmeyer went to court to force him into treatment. Under the Massachusetts law known as Section 35, someone can be involuntarily committed to addiction treatment for up to 90 days, which a judge approved for her son.

PATTY VEHMEYER: If I didn't do the section 35, I don't think my son would be alive right now.

BECKER: Vehmeyer's son went to the newest facility in Massachusetts for those court-ordered to treatment, the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center. It's a former minimum-security prison that still very much seems like a prison. The center is the only one of the five state facilities for the civilly-committed that's run by the State Department of Correction. Although the patients have not committed crimes, they arrive handcuffed, wear prison jumpsuits in a facility that's overseen by 100 correction officers. But Vehmeyer says she's grateful her son is there.

VEHMEYER: He has to wear the same uniform as prisoners. He eats the same awful food as the prisoners. I mean, these - the prisoners did - did things wrong to get them self where they are. My son just has a mental-health issue, and so he has to be there because that's the only place he's safe right now.

BECKER: The center is usually at capacity, which is 250 men. A private vendor provides the treatment which consists of counseling and classes on addiction. Superintendent Tom Neville says the men are patients, not inmates.

TOM NEVILLE: I'm not treating criminals. They're not here serving a sentence. They are here for the sole purpose of treatment in the best possible plan that we can get them back into society.

BECKER: Already the center has had controversies. Officials are investigating the death of a 29-year-old patient who was found unresponsive in his room last month with bedding tied around his neck. It was the fourth time he had been civilly committed. Some of the men who've been there say now they're even worse off. Sean, who didn't want his last name used, for medical privacy reasons, says he received little actual treatment there. Before he was committed, Sean was taking the addiction medication methadone, but he had to stop because the center's not licensed to provide any addiction-treatment drugs.

SEAN: It was the worst thing I've gone - I've ever gone through. They didn't have the things necessary to treat what I was going through.

BECKER: Not offering medications and the prison-like like setting have raised concerns. Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, says not only does research suggest that addiction medications are effective, many studies show that forced treatment doesn't work.

LEO BELETSKY: And the fact that people are in the state's care being administered treatment modalities that are not in fact rooted in science is shocking.

BECKER: Most states have civil-commitment laws for substance use, but not all states utilize them. Researchers who last year studied involuntary commitments nationwide say they did not come across any other state committing people to prison-run facilities if no crimes were committed. Massachusetts Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Fallon says correctional settings make sense.

CHRIS FALLON: This is the front line, and these are the guys that have checked themselves out of traditional treatment places. The families are at wit's end. They come to a place like this that we're going to try to keep them here as - as best we can.

BECKER: Fallon estimates that 40 percent of those civilly committed to the center will be court-ordered to treatment again. Even so, he says, the center's goal is to keep the men out of treatment and out of prison. For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Becker