Former inmate Jose Bou remembers the anxiety of solitary confinement as being so powerful that when he finally stepped out of his cell, he felt "like a rubber band pulled tight . . . ready to snap."
A decade ago, the now 37-year-old Bou was serving time in a maximum-security prison after being convicted on drug charges. He remained there for two years, confined to his cell 21 hours a day.
Bou's case, and stories like his, brought state lawmakers together with activists, lawyers, and medical professionals at a State House briefing Thursday to heighten awareness and promote an easing of solitary confinement policies. Those policies, they said, harm rather than rehabilitate prisoners who feel alienated from the community to which they are striving to return.
Roughly 500 of the 11,000 state prisoners are in segregation units on a given day. Solitary confinement cells differ between institutions, but in most cases the inmates are kept under lock and key for all but a few hours a day.
Lighting and ventilation in the cells can be poor, and prisoners are rarely allowed to keep books or watch television. At Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, where Bou was held, he was allowed a shower three times a week.
Massachusetts is one of two states (the other is Arkansas) where an inmate can be sentenced to solitary confinement for up to 10 years.
Senator James Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, has two state prisons in his district.
"Each year I walk through the prisons, and I have a chance to step inside a solitary confinement cell," he said at the briefing. "You get a very cold feeling imagining what that life is like. . . . It's shocking that these are the policies we have."
Eldridge and Representative Elizabeth Malia, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, are spearheading a bill that would allow for inmates facing severe isolation sentences to be given more rehabilitation and a chance for early release.
There are two kinds of solitary confinement in Massachusetts. In "administrative segregation," inmates, such as those awaiting trial, are kept in isolation for up to 15 days until correction officers determine where to move them.
But the 15-day rule does not apply to inmates who face "disciplinary segregation" for violence or other behavior problems. Prisoners with the most serious infractions are sent to the Department Disciplinary Unit at MCI Cedar Junction in Walpole, where they are kept in isolation 23 hours a day.
The bill Eldridge and Malia sponsored would require that inmates facing disciplinary segregation at Walpole and other facilities be given a hearing within 15 days of being confined and every 90 days afterward to evaluate behavior. Prisoners would also be given notice of what they need to do to be released, as well as a conditional release date.
Solitary confinement sentences would be limited to six months for all but the most extraordinary circumstances.
Stuart Grassian, a Massachusetts psychiatrist, said confinement exacerbates suffering for the mentally ill and can cause previously healthy inmates to become psychotic.
"Environmental deprivation has a profound, deleterious effect on mental function," he said.
Long-term isolation, Malia said, is a steep monetary burden on the state. The average cost to guard a state prisoner is roughly $45,000 each year, but it is double to triple that for an inmate in solitary confinement, she said.
While advocates of solitary confinement say such units are essential to keeping unruly inmates from harming themselves and others, Bou, now a youth counselor, said the segregation is a double blow to inmates' chances for reintegration: It takes away educational resources and drives prisoners to internalize an image of themselves as threats to society, he said.
Looking at the crowd of mostly college-age listeners Thursday, Bou said, "Everyone here looks like students. Imagine if you were in prison trying to start your education at 30, locked in a cell with no books."