Prisoners’ rights advocates in Massachusetts are looking to capitalize on a national prison reform movement to reduce the use of solitary confinement, saying the state has some of the strictest and most punitive policies in the country.
“Prisoners are being held too long in segregation, and the conditions are too harsh,” said Leslie Walker, a lawyer and executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services Massachusetts.
Walker and other reform advocates plan to testify Wednesday at a hearing of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, which is considering proposed reforms. Similar proposals have died in the Legislature, frustrating advocates who call the change in prisoner segregation policies a priority in the prison reform agenda.
The state Department of Correction runs a 124-bed disciplinary unit where inmates can be sentenced to segregation for years in conditions that can exacerbate mental illness, reform advocates say. Inmates in other state prisons can also be held in solitary confinement, without knowing when they will be allowed out.
About 75,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States at any given time, a number that does not include inmates in isolation in county jails.
Despite the reform efforts, victims’ rights advocates argue that the state should show little mercy for people who are being punished for crimes.
“We all know these guys are in prison for a pretty good reason,” said Sean Aylward, whose sister was killed when she was 15 years old.
“I think the system works, the system works well, and guys that find themselves in a situation to be put in solitary usually deserve it,” Aylward said.
The proposals before the Legislature would restrict the amount of time that an inmate can be held in segregation; would give inmates an avenue to show they do not need to be held in isolation; and would prohibit the segregation of pregnant inmates or anyone under a certain age.
The proposals would also force the Department of Correction to track and make public data on the number and makeup of people being held in isolation, as well as the time they are being held.
“It would look at who’s in segregation, how long they’re in segregation, and what type of conditions they’re in,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts, who plans to speak at the legislative hearing with other reform advocates, including people who have spent time in prison segregation and will speak of the affects it had on them.
The hearing, and a scheduled rally at the State House, come amid a growing movement to reform the nation’s criminal justice system, including prisons. In July, President Obama spoke out against prolonged segregation during a speech in Philadelphia, saying it does not rehabilitate inmates.
In September, the national Association of State Correctional Administrators, made up of the heads of correctional systems at the state and federal levels, issued a report denouncing the prolonged isolation of prisoners.
And Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy all but invited a constitutional challenge to the use of segregation when he wrote in a June opinion that the practice brought prisoners “to the edge of madness, perhaps to madness itself.”
Local advocates hope the national movement will resonate in Massachusetts.
A spokesman for the Department of Correction would not comment on the legislative proposals, but said generally that the use of solitary confinement plays a useful role in the corrections system: Violent inmates can be isolated for their own protection, or for the safety of other inmates and corrections officers.
“Through their own actions, these offenders have shown that they pose a significant public safety risk to those around them,” said Felix Browne, a spokesman for the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which oversees the prisons system.
He said inmates are offered opportunities to change the conditions of their detention “if their actions demonstrate good behavior and compliance with institutional rules.”
In Massachusetts, prisoners can be held in solitary confinement for a variety of reasons: For instance, the Department of Correction can isolate an inmate to protect him from rival gang members in the prison.
Inmates who commit crimes while incarcerated or break prison rules can also be sentenced to the department’s disciplinary unit as punishment for up to 10 years, making Massachusetts one of only three states in the country that allows the use of such long-term segregation.