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The Untold Story of a Controversial Institution

Conceived in 1854 in a spirit of altruistic social reform at a time when Massachusetts was a world leader in the provision of charitable services to its citizens, the Massachusetts State Almshouse at Bridgewater was intended as a model of state-sponsored welfare. Its role and the public attitude toward it changed so drastically, however, that just over one hundred years later, its successor institution, the Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI)–Bridgewater, was seen as epitomizing the nation’s failed social policies and was considered one of the worst prisons in the country. Today, the institution’s legatee, the Bridgewater Correctional Complex, continues to draw scrutiny as it grapples with century-old issues, and its most visible unit, Bridgewater State Hospital, remains controversial for its treatment of patients.

Massachusetts’s correctional complex at Bridgewater evolved from a single almshouse and later penal institution housing alcoholics, vagrants, “defective delinquents” and the criminally insane to its present arrangement of four individually administered units with specialized roles. Historically, Bridgewater has been troubled in part by an ever-changing and frequently unclear mandate that resulted in the historic commingling of the criminal, the poor, the mentally disturbed, the aged, the ill and the infirm, making it a challenge to administer the institution effectively or to rehabilitate its residents. Over the years, many inmates and patients have been illegally confined, committed without due process or without having been convicted of a crime. Understaffing, the absence of professional staff, deteriorating facilities, periodic abuse and violence and the tendency to use Bridgewater as a repository for individuals not wanted elsewhere contributed in the past to degrading conditions and an entrenchment of custodial rather than rehabilitative care. Given this dark history, it is not surprising that Bridgewater has a record of escapes and suicides, as many have sought to leave it by any means possible.

While class action suits since the 1970s have brought drastic improvement in both the administration of and conditions existing at Bridgewater, the very public challenges regarding the care and treatment of patients and inmates that persist today are not new; there is remarkable continuity between contemporary issues and those present nearly from the institution’s founding. In 1987, a report by the Massachusetts senate attributed Bridgewater’s problems to “130 years of unplanned and haphazard evolution.” It is the purpose of this volume to examine that evolution and specifically those issues that have tested the institution from the outset. The focus is on the years prior to 1990, when administration of MCI-Bridgewater as a single institution was ended and its several units came to be known as the Massachusetts Correctional Complex at Bridgewater, with an emphasis on the institution’s first century.

It is suggested that a historical perspective should necessarily inform current discussions about the future of Bridgewater and how that institution should meet the needs of its patients, inmates, officers and administrators, as well as the expectations of the commonwealth. It is hoped that a better understanding of Bridgewater’s troubled past may contribute to it becoming the model institution it once aspired to be.

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