Many incarcerated people, their families, and their advocates welcome the news that the Massachusetts Department of Correction plans to end solitary confinement within three years, including especially punitive sentences to solitary, which can be as long as 10 years per offense. The end of this practice is beyond overdue.
For too long, our clients have had such experiences in solitary as being shackled to a chair in a cold room for 90 minutes daily, deteriorating mental health leading to panic attacks, paralyzing anxiety, delusions, and suicidal thoughts; and the humiliations of being denied personal property, human contact, and sanitation.
The impetus for real change may finally be here. Last year, the US Department of Justice excoriated the DOC for its clearly unconstitutional approach to mental health care. And recently an independent consultancy, the Falcon Group, submitted a report to the DOC describing a pervasive “innately punitive culture” that “minimizes the interests of rehabilitation or positive behavior change.”
The report, which was released to the public last month, made clear that not only restrictive housing must end, but also that additional out-of-cell time is itself not a panacea. Studies show that evidence-based rehabilitative programming and treatment result in less violence and problematic behavior and better outcomes on reentry. Programming must also be meaningful, evidence-based, and target the actual needs of the population. Due process on paper without due process in practice leads to indefinite terms in isolation.
As the DOC develops its new approach, we are hopeful that the department will engage incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in the planning process. Most important, an effective plan must address the root causes of over-discipline. Implementing the elimination of solitary confinement in the Commonwealth will only be meaningful, successful, and lasting if those two conditions are met.
▪ Newly created units must not expand the use of segregated confinement or continue the status quo under a new name. DOC responded to the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act’s attempts to reform solitary by redefining solitary and creating new units that fall just outside the statute’s definition. A plan created in good faith would ensure that, in the near future, programming and rehabilitation would replace punishment as the default. There should be a narrowing of reasons for such punishment and a maximizing of out-of-cell time.
▪ Treatment and programming must be meaningful and should be expanded in the general population. To prevent behaviors that call for punishment, we call for the same trauma-responsive programming, substance use disorder treatment, and other programming in the general population as well as in restrictive units. Many incarcerated people end up being segregated because they have no access to helpful programs, treatment, or education. These are often taken away as a first disciplinary measure. Shifting resources from punishment to prevention, thereby addressing the root causes of behavior, is imperative.
▪ Pending reform legislation is still necessary and Civil Justice Reform Act protections must be applied to all segregated confinement. Two bills, “An Act to provide criminal justice reform protections to all prisoners in segregated confinement” and “An Act to ensure the constitutional rights and human dignity of prisoners on mental health watch,” are pending in this legislative session and are as necessary as ever to ensure that the due process protections of the CJRA are realized and improvements are actually made, especially in mental health watch conditions.
▪ Conditions at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center must be addressed. If DOC intends to shift to a nonpunitive model, it must immediately remedy the supermaximum conditions at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Half of the prison operates as a punishment unit, in which incarcerated people are in their cells 21.5 hours a day, have no contact visits, no access to the law library, cannot go to the gym or yard, cannot participate in any group religious services, and have no access to evidence-based programming. These conditions are counterproductive, harmful, and must end.
This is an opportunity for the DOC to shift its culture from one focused on punishment, segregation, deprivation, and control to one focused on supporting the rehabilitation, humanity, and dignity of the people in its custody, over 90 percent of whom will return to the community. We hope for a collaborative and transparent approach to moving forward, and we stand ready in good faith to assist in that work.
Elizabeth Matos is executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. Ray Champagne is a PLS board member who was incarcerated for 45 years. He was exonerated of his life sentence in 2020.