STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 13, 2016….Bridgewater State Hospital will move from a hybrid correctional facility and mental health treatment center to take on a more pure clinical focus under a new Baker administration plan that was hailed by prisoner advocates who sought further reforms.

Secretary of Public Safety and Security Dan Bennett told lawmakers on Tuesday that under the plan, the ratio of clinical staff to patients would increase and correctional officers would guard the exterior of the facility and entry ports while contracted mental health professionals would provide security within.

“The goal in this case is to take Bridgewater State Hospital and transition it from what it is now into more of a mental health facility,” Bennett told the Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse on Tuesday. “This has been what Bridgewater State Hospital should have been all along. This is a bold step that Governor Baker instructed me to take almost a year ago.”

Even advocates who delivered sharp criticisms of the state’s treatment of prisoners praised Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration for seeking broad reforms at the prison hospital.

In June the Disability Law Center found “systemic failures” at Bridgewater associated with the suicide of Leo Marino, who killed himself with toilet paper while in a segregated cell in the Intensive Treatment Unit in April.

“For the first time in decades, there is now a foundation in place to significantly improve mental health treatment and forensic evaluations for patients at Bridgewater State Hospital,” Baker said in a statement. The new approach “will quickly initiate much needed change to balance public safety and medical treatment to better serve the facility and the Commonwealth,” he said.

The plan would replace correctional officers with employees of the winning bidder in security roles, and none of the correctional officers would be laid off, moving instead to fill needed slots within the department, according to the administration.

Bennett said there would be “a new style of clinical programming” and “more individualized treatment” at the facility.

The state on Tuesday solicited bids, which are due Nov. 1 for a contract start date of Feb. 1, for an outside vendor to take over the security and clinical care at the facility. The Department of Correction would select the contractor and oversee the contract with input from the Department of Mental Health, according to Bennett.

“In the end it is a D.O.C. facility,” Bennett said. Under the request for response the vendor must have extensive knowledge of treating individuals with serious behavioral health needs, according to the administration.

The Department of Correction currently provides security for the facility while contractor MHM Correctional Services provides health care, according to Felix Browne, a spokesman for the public safety office.

Under the plan, the roughly 50 state-sentenced inmates at Bridgewater would be moved to a new annex at Old Colony Correctional Center, part of the same Bridgewater correctional campus, according to the bid solicitation. There are currently around 250 inmates sent to Bridgewater, according to the request for responses, including county inmates and “patients admitted for evaluations of competency” for trial.

Bennett told the News Service the new vendor would provide the same ratio of clinical staff to patients at both Old Colony and Bridgewater, and that staffing levels would be determined by bidders and the state.

Prisoner advocates urged the state to move control of the facility to the Department of Mental Health, arguing Bridgewater is not licensed as a hospital and Department of Correction oversight would lead to a correctional mindset.

“The need is for large, systemic change,” said Christine Griffin, executive director of the Disability Law Center. She said, “We’re looking for [the Department of Mental Health] to be in there in a much bigger way.”

Jim Pingeon, the litigation director for Prisoners Legal Services, said after three decades visiting Bridgewater he still has the same reaction to the facility.

“How can you possibly expect someone with a serious mental illness to get better in a place like this?” Pingeon said. He said, “It is a prison that’s called a hospital. But it’s not a hospital.”

Pingeon praised the administration for looking at the facility in a way, he said, no other administration has before, but he objected to the state-committed inmates – those who have received state prison sentences – being sent to Old Colony, which he described as “taking them out of the frying pan and throwing them into the fire.”

Pingeon claimed some correctional officers out of “frustration” or “sadism” encourage patients to kill themselves. Asked about that accusation, Bennett said, “I dispute that 100 percent.”

Rep. Paul Heroux, an Attleboro Democrat who was director of research at the Department of Correction from 2008-2009, told the News Service he has confidence in correctional officers’ ability to provide security, but said the population at Bridgewater presents specific challenges. He said a contractor “may be able to provide better services,” and questioned why the department wouldn’t train its own officers to better handle the Bridgewater population rather than outsourcing.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, told the News Service he questioned the lack of a minimum staffing ratio in the bid.

“I’m in agreement with the overall principles involved, that you want to try to deal with a human being that has serious behavioral issues humanely,” said Pacheco, who asked about minimum standards for staff to have a certain level of training or certification.

In a statement, Pacheco said that based on the testimony at Tuesday’s hearing “I am concerned that the administration’s continued use of private vendors for the facility’s mental health services, as well as the possibility of private security, may result in inadequate care for one of our most vulnerable populations.”

He added, “If we’re going to continue to use private vendors for this work, we need to ensure that the proper minimum care standards are in place from the start. I am worried that this process, without a solid foundation of standards, will result in low, insufficient contracting bids just for the sake of winning a contract; and as such, we may see a decrease in quality.”

[Michael P. Norton contributed reporting]

Copyright 2016 State House News Service