The Massachusetts Department of Correction is moving to end the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, a long-sought victory for advocates who have decried the impact of the practice on inmates with mental illness.
The decision, made in late June, follows an independent review of the state’s use of solitary confinement and concluded that the “innately punitive culture” of several types of solitary confinement units “minimizes the interests of rehabilitation or positive behavior change.”
The report from Falcon Correctional and Community Services, a Chicago-based consulting firm, also said the resources offered to inmates in solitary units do little to address the root causes of the initial disciplinary infraction, and made 11 recommendations to phase out the practice over the next three years.
Solitary confinement in the United States, officially known as restrictive housing, is defined as the isolation of an inmate for an average of 22 hours a day or more for least 15 consecutive days, according to the American Correctional Association.
Massachusetts will join a number of states that have limited the use of solitary confinement. Most recently, New York state passed a law barring prisons from isolating inmates for more than 15 consecutive days. According to the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale, four states have already eliminated solitary as it is currently defined. However, experts cautioned these restrictions don’t necessarily mean a complete end to isolation as a punitive tool.
“We need to give praise to Massachusetts,” said Judith Resnik, founding director of the Liman Center. “But the concern is — and we’ve seen this in other jurisdictions — that they say we don’t have restrictive housing, [and] instead there are people who are locked down for 21 and a half hours a day.”
“Don’t think 21 hours and 59 minutes is anything close to normal or helpful in keeping people safe,” she added.
Advocates for the abolition of solitary confinement were buoyed by the state’s pledge, but expressed reservations over whether prison officials will quickly follow through on their commitment.
“While I welcome the announcement and feel firmly that solitary confinement is torture, and torture is never an option, my concern is precedent,” said Laura Wagner, executive director of UUMassAction, an advocacy organization that oversees the group Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement.
Wagner pointed to several other DOC reforms that have not been fully implemented despite pressure from advocates and legislators, some of whom have accused prison officials of sidestepping mandates from the state’s 2018 criminal justice reform law.
State Senator Jamie Eldridge, cochair of the state’s Legislative Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said reforms to solitary confinement, including shorter stays and an increased focus on rehabilitation, were an explicit feature of the 2018 law. But in his most recent visits to several state prisons, Eldridge said he was under the impression that “people in solitary confinement do not have access to those things.”
“We need to get a greater commitment that that’s actually going to change,” he said.
DOC spokesman James Dobson said the department is implementing seven of Falcon’s 11 recommendations, and plans to adopt the other four, which include dismantling all solitary confinement units and expanding treatment for substance abuse. He said that details on the timetable were currently not available, but that the agency “remains committed to engaging stakeholders for their lived experience as well as national experts to align any change with best correctional practices.”
Correctional officers, meanwhile, said isolation is necessary for protecting the safety of both officers and inmates, and worried about taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the elimination of solitary.
“This isn’t the high school cafeteria where everybody can sit where they want,” said Guy Glodis, former Worcester County sheriff and legislative agent for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union. “Getting rid of restrictive housing in many ways could increase inmate assaults on one another and make it a much more dangerous atmosphere.”
Instead, Glodis called for better resources for inmates in isolation, including wider access to tablets, job training, and substance abuse counseling.
The DOC was also the subject of a federal investigation, which determined last year that the agency’s failure to properly care for prisoners struggling with mental health was in violation of their constitutional rights, including the use of “prolonged mental health watches under restrictive housing conditions.”
As of March 1, the state reported 194 male inmates in solitary confinement, less than half of maximum capacity and a nearly 34 percent decrease from the same time last year. There are currently no female inmates in solitary confinement under the state’s definition, down from six in March 2020.
Meanwhile, Black inmates in Massachusetts represent nearly 40 percent of prisoners in solitary, despite making up only 29 percent of the total custodial population, according to data collected by the Liman Center in 2019. Nationwide, a Bureau of Justice Statistics study published in 2015 reported that LGBTQ inmates were also overrepresented in solitary.
Falcon reserved its strongest criticism for the Department Disciplinary Unit, the system’s most restrictive area, where inmates can be held in solitary confinement for as long as 10 years. In 2019, nearly 60 percent of inmates in the DDU were classified as having a mental health problem, according to the report. Inmates described their experience in the DDU as being “shackled to a chair and staring at the wall.” Falcon called for the unit to be entirely dissolved, criticizing it as “a facility whose aim was punitive long-term supermaximum confinement.”
Wagner said recidivism rates are higher among inmates who spend long periods of time in solitary.
“We release people from the DDU unit after holding them for 10 years directly to the streets with only a bus ticket, and then we blame them for recidivism,” she said. “We’ve got to get real.”
Community organizer Michael Cox, who directs Black and Pink MA, a prison-abolition advocacy group that describes itself as queer-focused, said he had “serious concerns” about whether the state would follow through on its pledge to end solitary confinement.
Cox said he was put in solitary confinement while incarcerated more than a decade ago, after reporting an act of sexual violence. He asked for a cell change, but instead received a transfer to a new facility and 45 days in solitary. The Falcon report also noted that several former inmates said solitary confinement was “used as an administrative tool to protect vulnerable inmates from others, despite the person’s objection.”
“It has a chilling effect on the likelihood that I will report something in the future. If I know I’m going to go to solitary and get shipped out, I’m more likely to just navigate that situation on my own,” Cox said.
Cox was released from prison in 2012, but the toll of nearly two months in solitary never left him. By the end, he begged the nurse to prescribe him antidepressants because he was “really starting to lose it.”
“Particularly when you don’t know when you’re getting out,” he said. “Every day was a mystery.”
State Senator William Brownsberger said prisons will always use “some limited form” of solitary confinement, though it may go by different names.
“It’s true everywhere, in any prison setting,” he said, but added that the number of inmates who need to be segregated from the general population is “a much smaller number than the people who are in solitary confinement now.”
Even for those individuals, reforms should ensure that “they’re not in it as long, and they have a pathway out,” he said.