Mother Jones

Commitment ISSUES

Desperate families are having their opioid-addicted relatives locked up for treatment. But does forced rehab work?

ON A CLEAR NIGHT in the spring of 2017, Rob Ponte found himself in the middle of a forest in Massachusetts, chained at his wrists and ankles. He’d just spent hours in the back of a windowless van with three other men, and now he could see a construction trailer illuminated by bright orange floodlights and, in the distance, a clearing with a complex of cinder block buildings. Ponte, then a 30-year-old with a wan face and an athletic build left over from years of playing ice hockey, was taken by uniformed guards and brought into the trailer. He and the other men were told to strip. One by one, they were searched, photographed, and handed orange jumpsuits emblazoned with “D.O.C.” across the back. One of the guards ran through a list of questions: “Are you a member of a gang? Have you ever been incarcerated before?” It was then that Ponte realized he was being locked up.

But Ponte had not been charged with a crime. He was there because his father, who’d recently watched him relapse after years of wrestling with addiction, had asked a judge to have him civilly committed—essentially, forced into rehab.

Civil commitment allows states to confine people like Ponte who have not been convicted—or even accused—of a crime, if a judge decides they pose an imminent danger to themselves or others. Civil commitment laws have historically applied to people with mental illness, but recently they’ve been deployed to round up victims of the opioid epidemic. Thirty-seven states now allow court-ordered treatment for opiate or other substance

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