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SJC expands limits on placing inmates in solitary confinement

The state’s highest court has ordered safeguards against long-term solitary confinement of inmates who are placed in segregation for administrative reasons, such as for their own protection, in a ruling that rights advocates hope will reduce unnecessary isolation of prisoners.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled the state Department of Correction must follow existing court-mandated segregation regulations whenever a prisoner is held in a cell alone for 23 hours a day, with no contact with outsiders, even if the segregation is considered short-term and even if the department does not call it “segregation.”

Prison officials had placed inmates in “special management units,” but the court found the units were no different than segregation.

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The court, which upheld past decisions in its ruling released Friday, found that all prisoners held in administrative segregation are entitled to a hearing to petition for their release from segregation, and they must be told what steps they can take to expedite their return to the general population. They also must be given a projected release date.

“They are entitled to have the [departmental segregation unit] regulations applied to them and entitled to all the procedural protections and other rights included within those regulations,” the court said.

A spokesman for the Department of Correction said the department’s legal team was still reviewing the decision.

Bonita Tenneriello, one of the lawyers who handled the case, said that the decision sets clear guidelines for the segregation of inmates for administrative reasons, which include protecting an inmate considered to be at risk of gang retaliation or of being targeted because of the crimes he or she committed.

“The bottom line is you can’t hold people in conditions of solitary confinement without giving them the benefit of these regulations,” said Tenneriello, of Prisoners Legal Services, an inmate rights’ advocacy group. “This matters, because what the regulations say is you should only be in solitary if there’s a good reason to put you there.”

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The ruling also comes as prisoners’ rights advocates have called for an end to all long-term segregation, even for disciplinary reasons, saying studies show that the isolation of a prisoner causes mental health and other trauma that is counterproductive to an inmate’s rehabilitation and leads to recidivism.

The SJC ruling addresses only the department’s use of administrative segregation, however. The Department of Correction follows separate regulations for inmates ordered into segregation for disciplinary reasons, though prisoners’ rights groups have lobbied for legislation mandating that they be entitled to similar hearings to petition for their release.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.