BOSTON, JULY 17 -- Massachusetts' Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane became a national rallying point for mental patients' rights in the 1960s when Titicut Follies, a documentary film about abuses at the facility, was partially banned as an invasion of patients' privacy.
Today, citing six deaths at the hospital since November, Bridgewater patients filed a class-action suit to force state officials to hire more staff and improve psychiatric and medical care. The deaths include the apparent suicide of 55-year-old Edward Roake, who died April 14 after wriggling out of hand restraints and choking on an eyeglass lens and a sock.
The deaths and the lawsuit come at a time when the documentary's director, Frederick Wiseman, says he is considering legal action to to have the ban lifted.
Although the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1969 barred the general public from seeing it -- limiting viewership largely to legislators, lawyers and mental-health students and professionals -- the film was widely credited with improving conditions at the institution in the 1970s.
Bridgewater State Hospital, about 35 miles south of Boston, houses convicted criminals who are mentally ill and civilly committed individuals deemed too violent for institutions administered by the state mental health department. It also is used for court-ordered observation of individuals charged with violent crimes.
The lawsuit, which lists Gov. Michael S. Dukakis among the defendants, asks the Suffolk County Superior Court to order Massachusetts officials to comply with the state's "seclusion and restraint" law, which states that patients in restraints must be attended by specially trained persons. It also asks the court to appoint an expert to monitor compliance with the law and to evaluate medical and psychiatric treatment at Bridgewater.
"There is no question that the facility is being operated in a negligent way," said Roderick MacLeish Jr., an attorney who has represented patients at Bridgewater since 1979.
State officials said they would fight the lawsuit on the grounds that they are taking the actions recommended by MacLeish.
Citing ongoing investigations into each of the deaths and the formation of a group of state commissioners to study treatment at Bridgewater, Andrew Dreyfus of the Executive Office of Human Services, said, "we already have the top people in the state looking at this."
In May, Human Services Secretary Philip Johnston, who oversees the state correction department, initiated a 90-day study of treatment at Bridgewater. The committee of three commissioners -- corrections and mental health experts -- are scheduled to submit recommendations by Aug. 8, Dreyfus said.
The Office of Human Services is conducting a separate inquiry into the six deaths, Dreyfus added. A preliminary report on Roake's death found that, while staffing was insufficient to carry out all security functions the night he died, there were enough staff members in Roake's unit to keep him under constant observation.
Wiseman said the timing of his decision was unrelated to the deaths and was prompted instead by the film's 20th anniversary and favorable comments from a panel of attorneys and mental health experts who attended a special screening of the film in May at the John F. Kennedy Library.
"When I heard a number of state officials say they liked the film and saw no reason it shouldn't be shown publicly, it made me think there would be some support within the bureaucracies that deal with corrections for showing the film," he said.