Every new administration brings the promise of change — a promise that brings new hope to those who have been ill-served during the previous administration by a bureaucracy badly in need of a shake-up.
Few agencies fit that description better than the Massachusetts Department of Correction and few public officials are better suited to wield that new broom than Governor Maura Healey and Attorney General-elect Andrea Campbell.
It shouldn’t take a Justice Department investigation to bring basic and humane reforms to the state’s prisons — although in this case it did, with a settlement agreement finally reached in the waning days of the Baker administration. But even that agreement doesn’t address the myriad ways correction officials have largely ignored the landmark 2018 Criminal Justice Act on such issues as solitary confinement, medical parole, educational programming, and the continued use of chemical restraints on mentally ill inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital.
Late last month, the cochairs of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Jamie Eldridge and Representative Michael Day, held a two-day oversight hearing on just how far off the mark the department has been on all of those issues — a hearing at which the Baker administration declined to have any officials testify. But the hearing can and should provide a road map for the new administration — or for anyone committed to social justice and the rule of law.
“I expect the new administration will be markedly different in its approach,” Day told the editorial board. “I expect a more open, honest, and transparent level of communication.”
What the days of hearings confirmed to Day was that “many of the laws we’ve passed [relative to the criminal justice system] had not been implemented. I’m optimistic the Healey administration will … do what needs to be done.”
The new administration may get something of a honeymoon from legislative leaders but not from the Justice Department, which has alleged DOC “failed to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care and supervision to incarcerated persons in mental health crisis, and violated the constitutional rights” of those inmates “through prolonged restrictive housing on mental health watch.”
The settlement agreement, which was two years in the making, will be monitored by Dr. Reena Kapoor, an associate professor of law and psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. It requires data collection on the use of mental health watches within the first three months, requires new “policies and procedures” be drafted within six months, and a new Intensive Stabilization Unit be operational within 18 months.
The idea is for the department to deal with those suffering a mental health crisis without further exacerbating that crisis or punishing an inmate with long periods of what amounts to solitary confinement. And it meshes perfectly with the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which aimed to sharply curtail the use of solitary confinement.
And yet, Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners Legal Services, testified that the DOC has developed a system of “pseudo-solitary” that keeps prisoners in their cells for more than 21 hours a day.
“Our contention is that is certainly a violation of the spirit of the  law,” she said.
But the major complaint she hears from those incarcerated is that there simply isn’t enough access to programming — educational or rehabilitative.
“When people are spending a lot of time being idle and don’t have opportunities to focus on other things, they’re left with, again, the trauma and mental health issues and lack of treatment, separation from their families, and all of those things that make getting by day-to-day much more challenging,” she said. “The busier people can be, the better.”
As of Sept. 1, only some 15 percent of DOC inmates were enrolled in educational programs, while more than 3,000 remained on waiting lists.
If Healey wants to create a more humane and better functioning prison system, increasing programming is a good place to start.
So too, a better and more honest approach to medical parole than the one used in the year ending June 30, 2021, in which DOC granted only 17 of the 211 applications — and no applications of any of the 70 Black applicants.
“The statute was tailored to provide a humane option for people at the end of their lives,” said Mara Voukydis, an attorney heading up the parole advocacy unit at the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
But, she testified, DOC has narrowed its own definition of who is eligible to those with terminal or seriously debilitating physical conditions, virtually ignoring those with “serious cognitive impairment.”
A thornier problem for the new administration will be the future of Bridgewater State Hospital, a corrections facility that houses the seriously mentally ill. Former governor Charlie Baker rightfully claimed credit for reforming and revamping the facility in 2017 by turning over much of its operation to a private health care vendor.
But the Disability Law Center, a court-appointed monitor for Bridgewater, now says portions of its buildings are mold ridden and its use of chemical restraints on incarcerated patients under the guise of “emergency treatment orders” is in violation of the law, Tatum Pritchard, an attorney with the center, testified.
Criminal justice reform and prison reform were conspicuously absent from Healey’s inaugural address. They certainly don’t have the constituency that housing and transportation do. But they do speak to that “spirit of common humanity” the governor touted in her speech. Promoting a just and humane system will make this a safer Commonwealth — and that needs to be on this governor’s agenda too.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.