fb-pixel Skip to main content
Adrian Walker

It’s time to fix solitary confinement, before more abuse occurs

Shutterstock/ ChristianPhoenix

Whenever the subject of curtailing solitary confinement comes around, my thoughts turn to a morning I spent four years ago with a damaged but beautiful soul named Bobby Dellelo.

Bobby would be the very first to endorse the description of himself as damaged. During his 40 years in state prison, he had spent just over five of them in solitary. He went to prison for his role in a 1963 robbery in which a Boston police detective was murdered. Dellelo wasn’t the triggerman, but he was culpable. He landed in the penal version of purgatory after a failed attempt to escape from prison.


By the time I met him, he’d been paroled and become an activist. (He’s also since written a memoir.) His descriptions of spending a minimum of 23 hours a day alone in a tiny cell were unforgettable.

He told me he had expected it to be a piece of cake. After all, he had a radio and television. They didn’t work well, but that was his company.

The television was the first sign that he was unraveling. It was talking to him, in a private code. “Static wasn’t just static,” he explained. “It was speaking a language. It was speaking to me.” He tried putting it in a corner and forgetting it, but it kept emitting messages. It would take years to shake the feeling.

Solitary confinement in Massachusetts is an issue again. A recent Spotlight Team follow-up, based on a report by Prisoners’ Legal Services, indicates that the state is violating its own policies against placing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement.

PLS reports that eight prisoners with documented histories of mental illness have been placed into solitary confinement. In most of those cases the patients’ diagnoses had been downgraded before they were placed there. That could violate state law, as well as department policy.


These are patients with histories of suicide attempts and major illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Placing them in solitary is nothing short of cruel and inhumane.

The enduring appeal of solitary confinement as an option is easy to understand. It seems to make sense that removing troublesome criminals from the general population might deter bad behavior, or at least make it easier to manage.

But that isn’t what the evidence suggests. States that have reduced solitary confinement have seen no rise in prison violence. Furthermore, prisoners who are held in solitary often display worse behavior when they are finally released from it. Mentally ill patient need treatment. Solitary confinement is the exact opposite of treatment.

“Reducing long-term solitary confinement is a benefit in a lot of ways,” said Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. “Violence in prison goes down, and we’re not torturing people in boxes.”

Curtailing the use of solitary confinement would not be too difficult. Its use is mostly a matter of policy, not statute — meaning that Governor Charlie Baker could take action unilaterally. Walker compares such a move to the positive changes the administration has implemented at long-troubled Bridgewater State Hospital.

“I know they have the heart and the grit to do it in two areas, not just one,” Walker said.

Baker likes to say he is an evidence-based manager, and the case against long-term solitary confinement is strong.

He may get nudged by the Legislature. Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat and Representative Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat, are in the process of crafting legislation that would substantially alter the way solitary confinement is currently implemented. Their bill, which has not yet been filed, is likely to include regular reviews for prisoners in solitary, as well as specific plans for how they can rejoin the general population.


Even advocates believe that short-term solitary confinement can be a useful tool in prisons. But that holds true only for people who meet the criteria for it, in a system that is properly managed. That isn’t necessarily the case now, and its abuse is no longer acceptable.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.