Massachusetts prisons still rely heavily — too heavily — on the use of solitary confinement to discipline and control prisoners. Other than Arkansas, only Massachusetts allows prisoners to be sentenced for up to 10 years in isolation for disciplinary infractions, according to the Boston-based Prisoners’ Legal Services. It’s not a proud distinction.
The safety of correctional staff and inmates in the general population must never be taken for granted. But that goal can be achieved without resorting to extreme isolation, even when dealing with volatile prisoners with severe mental illness. The Massachusetts Department of Correction proved this point in recent years when it opened behavior-management units as an alternative to segregation cells at state prisons in both Shirley and Walpole. Prison staff quickly discovered that the newly housed prisoners were less inclined to hurt themselves or others.
Still, a recent Globe analysis estimated that about 500 of the state’s 11,000 prisoners are being held in solitary confinement on any given day. And it’s not unusual to find inmates who spend several months at a time confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day. As a rule, only inmates with the severest forms of mental illness are provided alternatives to segregation cells.
The impetus for prison reform in Massachusetts was stronger five or six years ago. That’s when the system had fallen under harsh scrutiny for a shocking spike in prisoner suicides, suicide attempts, and acts of self-mutilation by mentally ill prisoners. Things have calmed down since then. But failure to address the overuse of solitary confinement now is almost certain to set off another crisis in the future.
State Senator James Eldridge of Acton has filed a bill that would prohibit long-term solitary confinement as a form of discipline. Legislators need more information from correction experts on the practicality of Eldridge’s proposed requirements that prisoners be given hearings after 15 days of confinement and greater access to personal property. But lawmakers should welcome his emphasis on rehabilitative programs that motivate prisoners to improve their behavior and work their way out of solitary confinement. The cost of such efforts is significantly less than building and staffing segregation units.
Prisons officials will always require some flexibility to deal with disruptive and dangerous inmates. But falling back on 18th-century dungeon tactics isn’t the way to prepare inmates for the return to their 21st-century communities.