With a new courtroom and treatment center soon to be operational at Suffolk County Jail, several doctors and political leaders are coming together to oppose the plan.
Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins is setting up a makeshift courtroom and treatment center in his prison to care for those living in a large tented camp on the nearby streets. The sheriff says he has the bedroom and can help deal with the mental health and addiction issues affecting many people living in the encampment.
Doctors, politicians and activists gathered for a press conference near the jail on Wednesday to oppose the sheriff’s plan. Among them was Dr Sarah Wakeman, an addiction specialist and primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and medical director of substance use disorders at Mass General Brigham. She said research shows that forced drug treatment increases the risk of fatal overdose and that the city and state should look into things like supportive housing and community outreach.
“Drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, poverty, structural barriers including racism have resulted in the humanitarian crisis we are experiencing today,” Wakeman said. Fortunately, effective interventions for these issues do exist, but they do not include the displacement of community members without meaningful and safer places to voluntarily go, nor do they include mandatory detention and prison facilities. “
Boston’s acting mayor, Kim Janey, last week issued an executive order to remove the tents. His order declares a public health emergency in the area often referred to as “Mass. And Cass”, the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. People often stay there in tents because this is where several providers offer services to help homeless people and with mental health or addiction disorders.
Janey said people living in the tents would be offered a place to go before the tents were taken down. She also said that the use of a detention center for people with substance use disorders raised “questions and concerns.”
Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who worked as a public defender, said the resources spent on using the Suffolk County Jail to run the tent camp should be spent on public health.
“We have spent more to monitor this problem than it would have cost to provide housing for every individual on this side of town,” said Arroyo. “The systems that were put in place to criminalize this, to put people in jail still exist and now the easiest and easiest fruit to hope for. What I’m asking people to do is use these resources to recreate a system where we focus on public health, where we create real pathways that don’t involve police cars and jail cells. so that we can actually get to the root of these causes because we know incarceration won’t do that. “
Tompkins said his facility is in the neighborhood and can accommodate people quickly, before winter sets in and those living on the streets face additional problems. Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said Tompkins was the only one to come up with a viable option to deal with the misery and violence in the tent camp.
But state representative Ruth Balser said the state had not contacted behavioral health care providers who might be able to offer services in a health facility rather than a correctional setting. .
“We are surrounded by some of the largest providers of medical and behavioral care in the world,” Balser said. “I know that if the Baker administration were to do this kind of RFP (request for proposal), the vendors would come forward and offer to do these programs.
“I hear people say that everything is on the table. I am here to say that there is one thing that must be excluded and that is the incarceration of sick people.”
Balser sponsored legislation that would prohibit the state from involuntarily hiring men for drug addiction treatment in correctional facilities. The state no longer sends women to jails and prisons for treatment after being prosecuted. A similar lawsuit involving men is ongoing.
Tompkins said he would not engage people for involuntary treatment in his prison, although it is not clear what legal mechanism could be used to send people for treatment. He said people will be brought to court in his prison if they have outstanding arrest warrants and the court will determine what happens from there.
The court could be operational as of Monday.