By James Rioux
An Inmate Companion provides guidance to a visually impaired patient during NAMI walk
Over the past few years a select group of inmate workers incarcerated at Bridgewater State Hospital (BSH) have volunteered their time to provide companionship and support to civilly committed patients.
The ‘Companion Program’ was first developed by former BSH Deputy Superintendent of Patient Services and current Superintendent of MCI Pondville Pamela MacEachern, based on a compelling need to assist those patients who continued to experience difficulty meeting their individual treatment goals despite receiving increased clinical support. Treatment goals consist of improving personal hygiene, improving social and communication skills, increasing attendance in therapy, program, recreation, and leisure activities.
Inmate Companions are carefully screened by a multidisciplinary team of professionals which include the Deputy of Patient Services, IPS Team, Unit Psychologist, and Chaplain. When approved, companions participate in a comprehensive training program where they will learn how to effectively communicate with patients living with mental illness and will learn how to maintain appropriate boundaries. Inmate Companions also receive weekly supervision and support from clinical and security staff. Although Inmate Companions do not provide any clinical services or treatment they do play a significant role in providing patients with the skills needed to tolerate and thrive in less secure settings i.e. minimum security housing units, traditional penal facilities, and facilities managed by the Department of Mental Health.
Patients and their Inmate Companions can frequently be seen exercising in the gymnasium, listening to music in the clubhouse, or reading in the library. Inmate Companions also facilitate smaller groups for patients including: Music, Arts & Crafts, Bingo, and Horticulture. Of the fourteen inmates who are currently enrolled in the Companion program, ten are serving either 1st or 2nd degree life sentences. Although there may have been some apprehension in allowing ‘lifers’ to assist patients at BSH in the early going, Denise McDonough, Deputy Superintendent of Patient Services for BSH states, “the Companion Program has provided them opportunities to contribute to the hospital community and community at large in a positive and meaningful way. For instance, one of the patients who has required maximum security housing placement since his commitment to BSH several years ago due to his assaultive history, is now socializing more with others and participating in off unit recreational and leisure activities without incident. His progress can only be attributed to the combined efforts of security and clinical staff and to our inmate companions,” McDonough explained.
Since BSH staff has developed individualized de-escalation plans for each patient, re-purposed areas to create therapeutic environments on each unit called Quiet Rooms and Comfort Rooms, and formalized the supportive role of inmates via the Companion Program, BSH has become a safer more stabilizing environment for patients in need of enhanced clinical services and support.