NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

May 3, 2014

Family joins suit against Bridgewater

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — 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.

The suit cites statistics showing the use of seclusion and restraint at Bridgewater “is 100 times greater than it is at the other five facilities administered by the Department of Mental Health, combined.”

Zomosa was sent to Bridgewater in April 2013 after allegedly assaulting a doctor at BayRidge Hospital in Lynn. Since arriving at Bridgewater, he’s been placed in seclusion and in restraints numerous times, over hundreds of hours, including after “appearing disorganized and paranoid.”

During the same time period, incident reports show that correctional officers used “spontaneous force” on Zomosa, even during incidents when he was described as “calm and compliant.”

He was also allegedly secluded and restrained even after he was the victim of another inmate, including an incident last September in which he was punched in the eye and suffered a fracture.

As his mental status continued to deteriorate, his lawyers say, the response has been to increase the amount of time he spends in isolation and restraints.

Under state law, patients are supposed to be placed in seclusion or restraints only in “emergency” situations, described in the statute as “the occurrence of, or serious threat of, extreme violence, personal injury or attempted suicide.”

Zomosa’s lawyers say Bridgewater used the restraints regularly on him, including an incident in which he kicked the door to his cell and made a “series of odd statements,” including nonsensical ramblings.

Though civilly committed for treatment, Zomosa and other patients do not receive any sort of consistent care, the suit says. The facility lacks an electronic records system, making it impossible for a doctor in one part of the facility to know what another doctor has prescribed elsewhere.

“Mr. Zomosa’s continued presence at Bridgewater represents a threat to his life,” his lawyers wrote.

And a man who had no history of violence prior to the alleged BayRidge incident has increasingly acted out against others, as part of his paranoid delusions, said his attorneys.

The attorneys say that the practices at Bridgewater violate state law, as well as a 1988 settlement agreement and the facility’s own written policies. In 2003, a medium-security treatment unit at Taunton State Hospital was shut down, leaving nothing between private and state-run mental health facilities and the maximum-security Bridgewater facility. That has contributed to the problem, as has a lack of attention — and funding to address the issue — from elected officials, Weltman suggested.

“There’s no place else for them to go,” said Weltman.

The lawyers will ask a judge to certify a class action on behalf of all of the civilly-committed patients at Bridgewater. It will not include those who are there either as a result of a conviction or a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity.

“What we want to happen is some real change, not just for existing patients, but we’d like the system to change. And that’s only going to happen if the governor gets involved,” said Weltman.

Vilma Zomosa said she wants her son to receive treatment and eventually return home.

“He called me,” Zomosa said. “‘Mom, it’s not good for me.’ I’d like him to go to a good place.”

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.