Addiction Treatment in Jail: Massachusetts Sends Addicts to Prison for Treatment

addiction treatment in jail

When news breaks that an A-lister is admitting themselves to an addiction treatment facility, the media is typically splashed with images of a luxury, beachside rehab center. If we’re looking for a treatment facility for a sibling or significant other, we can assume most facilities will be comfortable residential buildings. Then we have rehab in Massachusetts: jail.

A sectioning law in Massachusetts incarcerates men involuntarily to receive addiction treatment in jail. While the concept seems offensive at first mention, especially if you’ve experienced or witnessed addiction first-hand, it may not be as barbaric as it sounds.

What Is Massachusetts’s Addiction Sectioning Law?

Massachusetts has a law, section 35, in which men are civilly committed for substance abuse treatment.

Under the law, family members, doctors, and/or police officers can petition the court to hold someone involuntarily if the person has a substance abuse problem and is at serious risk of harming themselves or others. It’s known as “sectioning.” A judge can section an individual with these circumstances for up to 90 days. For women, that means substance abuse treatment in a civil facility. For men, that means addiction treatment in jail.

Does the Program Actually Help?

The opioid crisis and substance addiction as a whole plague the entire nation. That said, Massachusetts has been hit relatively hard. About 2,000 people have fatally overdosed on opioids each year in 2016, 2017, and 2018 in Massachusetts alone.

The substance abuse sectioning law has been active in Massachusetts for five decades, but the opioid crisis has driven the number of people committed up by about 66% in the last 10 years.

Addiction is very much a self-diagnosed disease. But this law gives families the option to get help for their addicted loved ones who may otherwise be in danger of killing themselves. Supporters say it allows people the opportunity to stay alive long enough to realize they really did need help.

Sheriff Nick Cocchi, who runs the a section 35 program in Hampden County Jail in Western Massachusetts, explains that the men may be receiving addiction treatment in jail, but the treatment is far from that given to those who are criminally incarcerated.

  • The men in his program are referred to as clients rather than inmates or prisoners.
  • They’re housed in a separate unit than those who are criminally incarcerated.
  • While they can’t leave the jail itself, their rooms are not locked.
  • Clients have a structured schedule that includes classes, mindfulness meditation, and coaching, but they’re not forced to participate.
  • The program also offers 24/7 medical treatment and FDA-approved medications for opioid detox.

Opposition for Addiction Treatment in Jail

addiction treatment in jailOpposition for addiction treatment in jail lies on two main concerns. First, critics are concerned about the jail mentality that incarceration fuels. Joel Kergaravat, who was sectioned by his family earlier this year, claims,

“You put people in jail and they’re going to act like they’re in jail and a lot of people did.”

Kergaravat spent several weeks at a facility in Plymouth called the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC). A Massachusetts attorney is actually suing the state to end addiction treatment in jail on behalf of ten men who were sectioned at MASAC. The lawsuit cites abusive behavior by corrections officers and minimal substance abuse treatment.

This is not the same program that Sheriff Cocchi heads and defends, but that fact can also be cause for concern if treatment guidelines aren’t consistent across programs.

The second major concern is regarding stigma. Critics explain that even if the facility is nicer than typical prison settings, the law still tells these addicts they belong in jail — even though they have not committed crimes. It adds to the already overwhelming stigma attached to addiction.

Adding to these concerns is the fact that addiction is a self-diagnosed disease. As mentioned earlier, involuntarily holding someone to treatment may give them the opportunity to live long enough to realize they did need that help. However, in many cases, forcing treatment on someone who isn’t ready, willing, or prepared will not be effective.

The sheriff’s department reveals that fewer than 5% of more than one thousand men who were committed to the section 35 program in Hampden County have been sectioned again. But that doesn’t include the relapses that didn’t result in another sectioning. So that 5% can’t show accurate effectiveness for addiction treatment in jail.

What’s the Verdict?

Massachusetts is currently the only state in the U.S. that sends people involuntarily to addiction treatment in jail. In 2016, the state even altered the law to exclude women from prison. Again, women are sent to civil facilities for addiction treatment. So, many are fighting for this sectioning law to end.

However, the law does offer help to those who would never seek it otherwise. Sheriff Cocchi questions a future without his program:

“Take my hundred and twenty beds away. Then what? How many funerals we going to? How many family members have got to bury a loved one? I’m not going to be on that side of the coin.”