The Boston Globe | Op-Ed | October 14, 2019

Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi didn’t go into law enforcement to help people addicted to drugs. But setting those with substance abuse disorder on a path to recovery has become one of his life’s passions.

For the past year, Cocchi has operated an addiction treatment center out of the Hampden County jail for men committed under Section 35, the state law that allows family members, medical professionals, and law enforcement to commit a person to involuntary treatment for up to 90 days.

Before Cocchi opened the center, there were no beds for people civilly committed anywhere in Western Massachusetts. People with substance use disorder from this part of the state were transported, sick and detoxing, to a Department of Public Health facility in either Plymouth or Brockton.

When a woman died in the custody of Hampden County sheriffs while being transported to the eastern part of the state, Cocchi knew he had to do something. So the sheriff established Stonybrook Stabilization and Treatment Centers at the Ludlow jail to provide medically supervised detox to civilly committed men.

There, in a unit separate from the general population of inmates, the men follow a strict daily schedule that includes mental health counseling, life-skills classes, and Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The department also provides opportunities for physical exercise, yoga, and mindfulness classes for those who want them.

Stonybrook is staffed by doctors, mental health clinicians, social workers, and other counselors, as well as trained correctional officers — some of whom are in recovery themselves and serve as mentors and role models for the patients. Officers assigned to the unit dress in polo shirts instead of guard uniforms. And rather than patrol the unit, they sit with the clients at lunch and talk with them, lending support and encouragement.

Once detoxed and cleared by medical staff, patients transfer to an unlocked stepdown facility in Springfield, where they continue to work on their recovery and prepare to return to the community. They can leave at any time. But, at that point, most don’t want to until they’ve completed the program.

Massachusetts is the only state that uses correctional facilities for civil commitments of those with substance abuse disorder. And the practice is not without controversy. In 2016, after allegations of abuse surfaced at MCI-Framingham, but before Cocchi opened his treatment center for men, Governor Charlie Baker signed a law prohibiting correctional facilities from accepting civilly committed women. Prisoners’ Legal Services has brought a lawsuit to also prohibit correctional facilities from accepting civilly committed men. Several state legislators have also filed a bill to outlaw the practice in all cases.

Bonnie Tenneriello, a lawyer with Prisoners’ Legal Services, says that “jail is not an environment conducive to treatment.”

Cocchi disagrees. He says his program works better than civilian programs precisely because the patients can’t leave until they have detoxed and started programming. At that point, most choose to continue their recovery. Moreover, because the Hampden County program is funded out of the sheriff’s operating budget, rather than by insurance, it can provide treatment for longer periods of time. The average stay in the Hampden County program is 48 days. The average stay in a DPH facility, which is insurance-based, is half that. What is extraordinary is that the Hampden County program will provide services for as long as needed and desired by the patient — even after the 90 day civil commitment order expires.

Cocchi, who frequently takes calls from desperate family members seeking help, says that by the time people with substance use disorder get to him, their families have exhausted all other remedies. Putting their loved ones in a place they can’t leave to detox safely is their only hope.

Tenneriello objects to the treatment setting, arguing, “When you put people in a prison just because they have a disease, it is stigmatizing.”

But Cocchi notes that these are people who are already being forced into treatment against their will. “At that point,” he asks, “does it matter where?”

Jennifer C. Braceras is the director of Independent Women’s Law Center.


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