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Changing culture is key to fixing prisons

Erick Williams, a Fall River resident who spent 8 years in solitary confinement, with his son Levi.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Massachusetts corrections officials have come up with an alphabet soup of new names to describe what used to be called solitary confinement. Darrell Jones still calls it what most inmates and former inmates call it: “the hole.”

“When my son got murdered on the streets of Boston, I was in that hole,” he said at a recent State House news conference. “We had guys hang it up in there because the guards are outside in that booth and sometimes they don’t hear us yelling. . . . And all the time you keep asking, ‘Where’s my life?’ ”

Jones was exonerated last summer for a 1985 killing that sent him to prison for more than three decades. He knows the trauma of “the hole,” and that it doesn’t have to be that way.


It’s among the flaws the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018 was supposed to “fix” — to limit the use of solitary confinement to “the most extreme cases,” as state Senator Jamie Eldridge put it as he made one more push for yet another legislative fix.

The 2018 law “only allows a prisoner to remain in solitary confinement for over 60 days if that prisoner poses an unacceptable risk in general population.” But, Eldridge contends, the state Department of Correction is doing everything it can to circumvent that law. Whether they call it the Disciplinary Detention Unit, the Secure Treatment Unit, the Limited Privileges Unit, or the Secure Adjustment Unit, it comes with restrictions.

So the Acton Democrat has filed another bill, requiring more reporting, an appeals process to the Superior Court, and more specifics on the conditions of confinement. Yet he also acknowledges “the Department of Correction could absolutely implement the reforms” already — if they chose to.


The agency insisted, “The DOC is proud of the progress we have made internally and with outside stakeholders to implement modern effective policies that support the successful re-entry of those in our custody.”

Still, as of Oct. 7, it had 91 inmates in its Disciplinary Detention Unit and a total of 490 inmates in some kind of restrictive housing — or about 6 percent of its total population of 8,292. A 2018 Yale Law School study of restrictive housing in 34 jurisdictions (including the entire Federal Bureau of Prisons, Massachusetts, and 32 other states) put the national average for male prisoners at 4.2 percent. At the time, prior to implementation of the 2018 reform law, Massachusetts was at 5 percent.

Of course, what constitutes “restrictive housing” is in dispute. DOC calls its Secure Adjustment Unit at MCI-Concord “a diversionary alternative to restrictive housing that allows inmates between 28 and 35 hours per week of unrestrained, out-of-cell activities, significantly longer than the restrictive housing threshold.”

Eldridge insists that the practice violates the spirit of the 2018 law. And issues around restrictive housing and the state’s treatment of prisoners who are ill or elderly remains under investigation by the civil rights division of the US attorney’s office.

Prison reform advocates point to Colorado as a model. Prior to its passage of a 2017 reform law, Colorado prisons held about 5 percent of its 21,000 inmates in restrictive housing. The Colorado Department of Corrections then limited the use of restrictive housing to 15 days at a time. Today it remains the only state in the nation to observe such a limit and, according to the Yale Law study, the number of prisoners in restrictive settings had dropped by 2018 to 0.1 percent.


Massachusetts does not need a new law to institute reforms like this; it needs corrections officials willing to change. Prison reform is often about changing the culture, and it’s time for more state leaders to call on the DOC to do so.

While our state prisons assuredly house some bad actors, and order and discipline keeps inmates themselves safe, we must bear in mind that most inmates will at some point be returning to the community. What kind of treatment they receive within prison walls will play a large role in determining how they will be when they leave.

Prison inmates don’t have a constituency or political clout. But humane treatment in prison — and for corrections officials that means playing by the rules — is simply the right thing to do, for dignity and public safety.