Back to Basic Civil Rights in Psych Hospitals - Massachusetts and Beyond

ACTION ALERT: Contact your legislators today! (Massachusetts residents)

Greetings to ALL Cause members, and a warm welcome and thanks to new members! We now have 61 members and counting!

Although this post is directed to Mass. residents, PLEASE feel free to forward this message to anyone in the Bay State.

The rights of persons with mental health histories (consumer/survivors) is one of the last frontiers of the great American Civil Rights movement. As we honor the immortal legacy of Dr. King’s vision, and celebrate and celebrate the landmark of Barack Obama’s Inauguration, we should note our own opportunity to help complete this vision - by demanding that the consumer/survivor population be treated with equality, respect and dignity.

Last Wednesday, a bill was filed at the Mass. State House by Rep. Denise Provost and and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, both of Somerville, that would combine two efforts that were pursued last year. Both sought to clarify and amend an existing state law, and the new bill seeks to enforce basic civil rights for those in mental health facilities and add another right – the right to access to fresh air and the outdoors.

1.) Five Fundamental Rights Enforcement – The Problem:
This bill, filed in 2007, would provide enforcement and means to appeal an existing law’s violation. The “Five Fundamental Rights” (5FRs) law was signed into law in 1998, and spelled out five basic rights for ALL persons confined to inpatient psych units and group homes (Mass. General Laws, Chapter 123, Section 23). However, there’s no effective way to appeal its violation. The result? The 5FRs are violated daily at most psych. facilities, without consequence.

Here are the Five Fundamental Rights (paraphrased):

A.) The right to make and receive telephone calls, in privacy;
B.) The right to send and receive unopened and uncensored mail, and assistance in doing so;
C.) The right to receive visitors of one’s own choosing and in privacy;
D.) The right to a humane psychological environment, providing dignity and privacy in sleeping, bathing, and toileting; and
E.) The right to receive/refuse visits from legal counsel, legal advocates, clergy, and outside doctors.

- Some of these rights may be suspended, but ONLY on a case-by-case basis, by certain high-level staff, and on a temporary basis. Patients must be notified of these rights on admission, and they must be posted in a conspicuous place.

Here’s what is REALLY happening in many locations (based on my/other advocates/legal sources’ own observations):

Most telephones are located in hallways, which are often located next to nurses’ stations. Calls are listened in on by staff, phones are ‘turned off’ for hours at a time, and in many places, only pay phones are provided. Phone calls are often restricted to very short amounts of time, and many new patients cannot call workplaces and/or family.

Patient mail is sometimes opened and searched prior to receipt, without the patient being present (as stipulated by law).

Visiting hours can be limited to 1-2 hours a day. Many visits take place in patient rooms, hallways, and common areas where there’s no privacy. Staff monitors visits in common places, and visits are sometimes not allowed.

People are observed while bathing, sometimes by staff members of the opposite sex. There can be an atmosphere of intolerance and annoyance to patients by overworked and unqualified staff.

Patients have been denied access to legal counsel or other outside visitors.

In addition, many facilities don’t notify new patients of these rights, and sometimes they’re not posted –if they are, they often aren’t located in a conspicuous place.

Five Fundamental Rights Enforcement – What the proposed legislation will do:

The bill creates a way to appeal violations of fundamental rights. Currently, only written complaints are accepted. Some go to the State Department of Mental Health (DMH), which has no...

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