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May 3, 2014

Family joins suit against Bridgewater

PEABODY — At Malden Catholic High School, Felipe Zomosa was an excellent student, said his mother, Vilma, who worked two jobs to pay for the private school.

“It was very hard for me, but he is my son,” she said. And like all parents, she wanted a good future for her child.

The Peabody mother’s dreams for her son’s future dimmed a bit when he began to experience symptoms of depression in high school. That depression worsened after he went into the Army, where he served briefly. Eventually, he would be diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Today, Zomosa, 31, is one of between 150 and 175 mentally ill men who, though not convicted of a crime, are being held at Bridgewater State Hospital, a state prison facility.

A lawsuit filed this week on behalf of Zomosa and others being held there alleges that state officials are violating not only state law but their own policies by using restraints and seclusion to control mentally ill inmates, many of whom were sent there after allegedly assaulting staff or doctors at other facilities. It turns out Massachusetts is the only state that houses civilly-committed mentally ill patients like Zomosa in the same facility as convicted criminals with mental illness.

“There is nothing else like it in the entire country,” said Jeremy Weltman of the law firm Clark, Hunt, Ahern and Embry, which filed the suit Thursday in Norfolk Superior Court.

And once inside the walls of Bridgewater, the suit alleges, the patients are supervised by correctional officers with little or no training in mental health. Symptoms of their illnesses are treated like disciplinary violations by guards whose training is in controlling potentially dangerous individuals, not in dealing with mental illness, the lawyers contend.

That has led, the suit says, to the extreme over-use of seclusion and restraints, including on Zomosa, who has spent more than 4,200 hours in seclusion during the year or so that he’s been housed there.

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