Three men held in solitary confinement at MCI-Cedar Junction in South Walpole have filed a class-action lawsuit against state Department of Correction officials alleging that their near-total isolation amounts to torture and has led to depression, anxiety, and a loss of social skills.
Emmitt Perry, Carlos Bastos, and Soksoursdey Roeung have each spent more than a year in a disciplinary unit where they “are regularly confined to their individual cells for 23 hours a day for 5 days of the week, and 24 hours a day for the other 2 days of the week,” according to the complaint filed last week in Suffolk Superior Court.
Those cells are roughly the size of a parking space, according to the lawsuit, which was brought by the Boston College Law School Civil Rights Clinic and Holland & Knight LLP. The suit names DOC Commissioner Carol Mici and Sergio Servello, superintendent of MCI-Cedar Junction, as defendants.
“Such conditions could reasonably be characterized as torture under the United Nations’ 2015 Mandela Rules, which state that the confinement of a prisoner for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact for a period longer than 15 consecutive days is regarded as a form of torture,” the plaintiffs argue.
Prisoners held in what is called the Departmental Disciplinary Unit also receive smaller meals, have reduced access to food and hygiene products sold at the facility’s canteen, and have greater restrictions on phone calls and visitors, according to the suit.
Department of Correction officials said Thursday that they do not comment on pending litigation. They pointed to an April announcement that the department plans to phase out the housing of prisoners at MCI-Cedar Junction over the next two years.
According to the lawsuit, the state’s 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act says a prisoner cannot be confined to a cell more than 22 hours a day for disciplinary reasons for longer than six months. A person can be kept in isolation longer only if the institution reviews the placement every 90 days and finds the prisoner “to pose an unacceptable risk to the safety of others, to property, or to the operation of the correctional facility,” the suit says.
Roeung has been in restrictive housing since August 2013 and is scheduled to be released next month, court documents say, while Bastos has been isolated since December 2020 and Perry since July 2021, with both expected to remain in solitary confinement until 2026.
When the men receive 90-day reviews, Department of Correction officials improperly rely upon the initial reason they were segregated from other prisoners and the length of their isolation to justify continuing it, regardless of their behavior over the preceding 90-day period, their attorneys argue.
The reviews do not allow prisoners to participate in person, which violates their due process rights, according to the suit.
“Plaintiffs’ continued solitary confinement . . . after DOC’s failure to release them at each placement review hearing has led to physical and mental harm including discomfort around other people, loss of social and communication skills, along with strong feelings of anxiety, depression, helplessness, and loneliness,” the lawsuit says.
The prisoners ask that the court require a new, fairer review process and restore many of their rights.
Prisoners’ rights advocates and state legislators said in a statement released Thursday by the plaintiffs’ attorneys that long-term solitary confinement is dehumanizing.
State Representative Liz Miranda, a Boston Democrat who filed a bill last year seeking to reform solitary confinement practices, said she had “witnessed first-hand that the individuals being placed in solitary were being put into inhumane conditions.”
“No one deserves to be treated as disposable,” Miranda said in the statement. “We are dealing with case by case claims of abuse in solitary confinement and cannot afford to wait for the DOC to dissolve solitary and segregated housing over the course of 3 years when people are being abused and mishandled now.”
James Pingeon, litigation director for Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said the Departmental Disciplinary Unit “is a dysfunctional failure that even the DOC acknowledges should be closed.”
“This suit seeks to replace the counter-productive punitive culture of the DDU with rehabilitative programming and opportunities for constructive activities that will benefit both people incarcerated and the community as a whole,” Pingeon said in the statement.
State Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who chairs the Joint Committee on the Judiciary and cochairs the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said the unit’s “inhumane design . . . recklessly disregards a prisoner’s physical and mental health, as well as basic human needs, and underscores why solitary confinement should be ended in Massachusetts prisons.”