In 2013, Lee Unitt was sentenced to four consecutive two-year terms in prison and up to 20 years of probation, but according to an ongoing lawsuit, the real punishment she received was far worse than that.
At the state’s women’s prison in Framingham where she was incarcerated for six years, Unitt claims she was confined in cells that often felt like a furnace with heat pouring in, no air conditioning, and no ventilation except for windows that could only be cracked open. The temperature indoors would sometimes climb above 100 degrees. Without many other options, prisoners regularly tried to block the heat emanating from the ceiling by using trash bags as makeshift heat shields.
It gets worse. As reported by Shira Schoenberg of the Springfield Republican/MassLive, the so-called cottages where Unitt was housed were contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, a harmful chemical known as PCBs. In her federal lawsuit, Unitt claims that the cottages’ tile floors were made of asbestos, a potentially deadly substance, and that she was exposed to black mold in the showers.
It sounds hellish for anyone, but for Unitt, it may have been particularly damaging. The former paralegal who is now out of prison and in her mid-50s has “a rare, chronic medical condition characterized by abnormal cell growth in artery walls,” which is exacerbated by exposure to toxic particles. Unitt also has diabetes and hypertension, and the medication she takes makes it difficult for her body to regulate its own temperature. Despite that, when Unitt asked for a fan in her cell to help cool down, she was denied.
According to the MassLive story, Unitt suffered a series of strokes during a 2016 heat wave before prison officials relented and gave her a fan. Medical care at the women’s prison was also lacking, according to Unitt who says that after she suffered internal bleeding in a leg she was given an ice pack and sent back to her cell. The injury was later diagnosed as a tear in her artery and because she wasn’t treated quickly enough, she continues to suffer pain.
Now seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and given the green light to proceed with her suit by US District Court Judge Richard Stearns, Unitt has another troubling allegation: her treatment was hardly unique.
“It’s devastating because of the fact that it happens every day at Framingham,” Unitt said in an interview with Schoenberg. “I wasn’t the only one, but I was the only one that fought.”
If Unitt’s description of the Framingham prison is fair and accurate, then the decades of sending women to the facility for involuntary commitment for substance abuse disorder look even worse than they already did. For years, MCI-Framingham doubled as correctional facility and a quasi-hospital for people addicted to drugs and alcohol. Gov. Charlie Baker ended that practice in 2016, signing a law to ensure it would not continue.
Years ago, before her trial and conviction for embezzling money, Unitt lived a lavish lifestyle, including vacations to “Malaysia, Club Med, Cancun and Aruba, expensive cars including Hummers, Cadillacs and Land Rovers, and thousands of dollars in monthly personal expenses,” as the Newburyport Daily News reported in 2013.
Unitt, who lived in Concord, worked at The Crest Group, a Woburn law office run by her husband, Peter Unitt III, who ran unsuccessfully for state representative as a Republican in 2002. From the law office, the couple essentially ran a Ponzi scheme, dipping into clients’ investments and repaying them from other clients’ funds, misappropriating or stealing $800,000.
According to the Daily News article, Lee Unitt was the one who came up with the embezzlement operation in the first place, but her lawyer husband was the sole signatory on the accounts.
Peter Unitt, who didn’t go to trial, received a lighter penalty. He copped to the charges against him, and was “sentenced to the house of correction for two years, with one hundred twenty days credited as time served and the balance suspended for four years with the condition that he pay restitution,” according to his subsequent disbarment issued by the Supreme Judicial Court.
For Lee Unitt, who has now accused the state of violating her Eighth Amendment right to be free of “cruel and unusual punishment,” the years spent in prison took an enormous toll — and are now the basis for an alarming account of overall conditions at Framingham.
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