Worcester State Hospital Imposes Severe Restrictions

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worcester state hospital

Worcester State Hospital

Worcester State Hospital has implemented sweeping changes and severe restrictions for those hospitalized on their grounds. Although outsiders to the hospital are generally being told that the changes are only a temporary measure, the fact that the 30 days has repeatedly been referred to as a “trial period” suggests at least some of the restrictions may be sticking around long-term. Senior hospital officials have also referred to a “re-evaluation period” following the initial term, which does not bode well for the idea that this is only a “temporary” shift. Perhaps what is most disturbing is the level of apparent secrecy surrounding what the changes actually are, or how to get them in writing.

Here’s what we know so far:

On May 12, a woman died of a drug overdose in a bathroom at Worcester State Hospital where she was hospitalized. This follows the overdose death of a 29-year-old man who was also hospitalized there. There have been six overdoses reported since 2016. This appears to be what led up to the 30-day lock down that some Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (DMH) officials are referring to as “Back to Basics”.

Restrictions cross many areas. They include food restrictions as follows:

• Visitors are only allowed to bring in small amounts of food to people incarcerated at the hospital, and the people who receive the food are not allowed to share with others
• People hospitalized at Worcester State are no longer able to order out food from vendors beyond the hospital (One of the few freedoms and moments of enjoyment to which they’ve historically had access)
• People hospitalized at Worcester State are now only allowed to order or get food from the vendor that makes food in the “downtown” area of the hospital (However, that vendor often closes up shop by 4 or 5pm, and due to their extremely limited open hours, there are very long lines involved when food is available)

One of the only items we’ve been able to acquire in writing is about contraband and some of the food restrictions. You can find them HERE.

We are unable to provide the full list of changes because no one has been willing to provide them to date. (Some employees at the hospital have indicated that they have explicitly been "barred" from speaking about it.) However, we have heard that the “downtown” area (which was touted as one of the best and most innovative aspects of this structure when it was first being built) is now largely shut down and unavailable for much of the day. Similarly, the bathrooms in the “downtown area” are now locked, and people can only access them by asking a staff person to open them (so that they can monitor who is in and out of them).


Fence at Worcester State Hospital

Meanwhile, passes to leave the hospital have been discontinued. At first, this was an across-the-board occurrence that led to (for example) at least one person hospitalized there missing their first day of a job they’d worked hard to get. Now, there are some efforts to look at situations on a “case-by-case” basis via a waiver process, but the end result is that many people who had been able to access the outside world on a regular basis are now essentially on lock down. Even access to fresh air within the confines of the hospital’s grounds (and still behind tall, prison-like fences) has also reportedly been restricted, in spite of the state’s Six Fundamental Rights laws requiring that such access be regularly available.

Additionally, we are told that the new requirements to escort people throughout the hospital (and on passes when they do occur) have put such a strain on the hospital overall, that other activities and groups have suffered. Lack of groups, lack of passes, lack of ability to order food, and more have left many people without much to do at all. One source recently described the resulting atmosphere in the hospital as being like a “pressure cooker”.

Mikula -Joan 257x320

Joan Mikula

Interestingly, a recent series of investigative reports from WCVB Channel 5 in Boston featured an interview with DMH Commissioner of Mental Health Joan Mikula (who has often been very receptive to our input) during which she offered the following:

“The Department of Mental Health operates hospitals not prisons. There is more than a fine line between assuring that you have the right security and assuring that you have the kind of appropriate healing space where people can be treated”.

However, many have questioned that sentiment, referring to the new restrictions as explicitly “prison-like”, and wondering if Bridgewater (which is basically a prison) may not now be a better place to land, given that they at least seem to have more programming with which to help people stay occupied. It’s also worth noting that, in the same series, it was revealed that sometimes cleaning and kitchen staff who have little to no experience offering support are pulled in during times of low staffing to work directly with people hospitalized there.

Note that none of the restrictions we’ve heard so far apply directly to the staff, although it is far from unheard of that employees would have a role in bringing drugs into a facility of this nature.


There is a serious need for transparency as to what is going on in the Commonwealth’s purportedly “state-of-the-art” mental health facility that cost Massachusetts $305 million just to build. Although excuses have historically been made about how the money wouldn’t have been able to go to community supports even if it wasn’t used to build a new hospital, we remain skeptical and want answers.

Perhaps most importantly, we are concerned at what’s being missed in this flurry of restrictive measures (and in news coverage focusing on violence): The research says hospitalizations hurt. The research says that hospitalizations lead to increases in suicide rates. The research says that hospitalizations lead to increases in deaths due to overdose. The research says that loss of power and attempts to control people increase violence. And, the research (and the many years of first-hand experience we hold between us) says that people who are locked up, told they are sick, told they are patients, told they have no freedoms, and who are left contained without any of the things they enjoy or that make life worth living will act accordingly.


So, Now What?


So, what do we do next? In the short-term, you can share this newsletter and help make sure that everyone's aware of what's going on.

But what should be our next steps? Let us know what you think by e-mailing us HERE.

In the meantime, if you have knowledge of concerns at Worcester State Hospital you are welcomed to call the Disability Law Center at 800.872.9992 and ask for Nancy (x202). (Nancy is the attorney assigned to work directly with the hospital on issues of this nature.)


Why We Won't (Ever) Call Worcester Hospital a "Recovery Center"

The short explanation: Taking words from marginalized groups (such as people who've been given psychiatric diagnoses) and using those words in the name of the systems and facilities (such as Worcester State Hospital) that are most likely to be used to oppress and strip rights away from that same group is unquestionably wrong and harmful.

A bit more detail: Many in our community believe it is a serious insult to call a place where people are forcibly contained a "recovery" center. This includes many of us who don't like or use the word "recovery" ourselves (because it has been co-opted and/or some of us see it as just being another "box" for us to be put in). Many of us also believe that anyone who refers to such a place as a "recovery center" then become complicit in that oppressive behavior.

That Worcester Hospital is being allowed to strip people of their rights in secrecy behind closed doors in the way that they currently are only serves to prove our point even further.

An ask to you: Please refer to this facility as what it is - A hospital. It doesn't matter whether you think psychiatric hospitals are useful, harmful, or a mix of both. Even if you believe that psychiatric hospitals are the most important and useful part of the service system, you can still at least show respect to those of us who have been hurt by being locked up against our will by simply calling it exactly what it is.

no recovery ahead
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