When All Else Fails: Section 35 Civil Commitments for Drug and Alcohol Treatment

When a loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder (including alcohol) and has refused or been unable to commit and comply with voluntary treatment, a further option is to petition the Court to involuntary commit that person for treatment pursuant to Massachusetts General Law Chapter 123, Section 35. A spouse, blood relative, guardian, physician, police officer or court official (such a probation officer) can make such a petition. Involuntary commitment can be ordered if, following an evaluation by a psychologist or social worker, the court finds that the person has a substance use disorder and that there is a serious likelihood of harm to that person as a result of the disorder. The judge can then commit the person for up to 90 days to a facility licensed or approved by the Department of Public Health or the Department of Mental Health. If the court makes a specific finding that a secure setting is necessary, the individual can be committed to a facility that will physically prevent them from leaving the program on their own. When designated to a secure facility, the person will be transported to the facility from court by the sheriffs or Department of Corrections and may not leave the facility unless discharged by the program. When the non-secure Section 35 facilities get filled however, people who do not meet the requirements for a secure facility may also be placed at a secure facility. While Section 35 commitments are viewed as a necessary safeguard for people suffering from addiction that puts their lives and safety at risk, the treatment conditions offered at these facilities are far from therapeutic.

In December of 2017, the Boston Globe published a disturbing article about the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC) at Plymouth which is the secure facility for alcohol and drug addicted men. While it is a designated treatment facility, it is run by the Department of Corrections and has the look and feel of a prison. MASAC at Plymouth is run by correctional officers and the patients wear orange uniforms and laminated badges that say “inmate.” Former patients complain that the facility is unsanitary, food provisions are inadequate in quantity and are often inedible. Individuals interviewed in the article complained that meetings with counselors were very brief with minimal therapy provided.

Currently, there are not been enough beds for men committed under Section 35 to all be treated at licensed inpatient treatment facilities. As a result, men are routinely committed under Section 35 to prisons. Prior to 2017 they were sent to Bridgewater State Hospital which is run by the Department of Correction (don’t let the name fool you-it’s a medium security prison but with more medical staff); a recent change in the law now permits men committed under Section 35 to be sent to any DOC facility approved by the DOC Commissioner. To be clear, prisons are not treatment facilities and an individual placed in a prison pursuant to a Section 35 commitment will live with, and under the same conditions as, people serving state prison sentences. Women no longer are sent to MCI Framingham for Section 35 commitments following a change in the law in 2016.

If you are looking for treatment options for yourself or a loved one, consider contacting the Massachusetts Substance Abuse Information and Education Helpline at 800-327-5050. I have personally called this number many times for suggestions and referrals for substance-dependent clients and have been very pleased with the suggestions and referrals. The hotline is open 24/7 and the people answering the phones are very knowledgeable. Section 35 petitions may be a necessary measure but is best pursued when other options have been exhausted.

Disclaimer: I am a lawyer providing information about Section 35 commitments. I do not have expertise in substance abuse treatment and am not qualified to provide advice regarding whether an involuntary commitment is appropriate for your loved one.