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yvonne abraham

Offering some solitary thoughts

Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press/File

We like to think of ourselves as enlightened here in Massachusetts. But when it comes to how we treat inmates in our jails and prisons, a bunch of other states have us beat — including Maine, led by governor Paul LePage, who has spoken longingly of bringing back the guillotine.

There, people have caught onto the fact that putting too many inmates in solitary confinement, especially for long periods, is bad for everybody.

It’s not good for the inmates. Isolation does permanent psychological damage, after even a few days, making even healthy people more likely to harm themselves or others. Putting mentally ill inmates in solitary exacerbates their illnesses.


It’s not good for the rest of us, either. Solitary costs two or three times what we pay to house other inmates. It denies inmates access to services they need to re-enter society, making them more likely to re-offend.

So, even if you reckon people who have been denied their liberty should also be denied fundamental humanity, there are plenty of reasons to rethink solitary here, as they’ve done in many other places. Colorado, Kansas, Ohio, and Mississippi have all reduced their use of solitary in recent years. None of those states have seen spikes in prison violence as a result.

But here, we remain greatly attached to the barbaric practice, allowing prison officials to send inmates to solitary for up to 10 years per offense, with no access to services, and no pathway out. We also subject inmates to the torture of utter isolation on the pretense of protecting them.

Two weeks in solitary at a jail in Bristol County almost broke John Calvin. The Palestinian asylum seeker was held on an immigration detainer at the jail when he told a therapist he’d been sexually assaulted. He said he was then placed in a 6 by 9 isolation cell, naked, with a transparent door, supposedly for his own protection.


“It was the dirtiest place I had ever been in my life,” he said. He had nothing to do for days but stare at the profanity-covered walls. His cell flooded several times as other isolated inmates, starved for human contact, clogged the plumbing to provoke guards. He hallucinated, and thought of suicide.

“I was shocked,” said Calvin, who was eventually allowed to stay in this country. “This was happening, not just in America, but in one of the most liberal states.”

Prisoner advocates said Calvin’s account is consistent with those of other Bristol inmates, where men have been isolated for even minor offenses, or because they’re mentally ill. Mentally ill inmates are isolated in state prisons, too, despite a legal agreement to end the practice.

There is a better way: In the Secure Treatment Unit at Souza-Baranowski, dangerously ill inmates are contained, but also get therapy and human interaction. But its 29 beds don’t come close to covering the need here.

Eight bills that have been filed to change this sorry state of affairs would restrict the use of solitary for vulnerable inmates, narrow the periods and offenses for which it would be imposed, and give segregated inmates more services. And it’s not just liberals pushing for this: The conservative Pioneer Institute wants more humane practices, too. But there seems to be little appetite for real reform on Beacon Hill.


As an assistant district attorney, public safety secretary Dan Bennett prosecuted an inmate for a brutal stabbing attack on a guard in 2012, and that experience appears to have cemented his intransigence here. He has shown gruesome footage of the attack to legislators, maintaining that solitary confinement is necessary to protect inmates and guards. In a statement, he said: “Without the ability to separate the most dangerous offenders from the general population, the level of safety . . . would be significantly diminished.”

Of course it is necessary to isolate some inmates. But solitary is being overused. And we shouldn’t be torturing any human with complete and extended isolation.

“You don’t put someone in the population if they pose a real threat,” said Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services. “But you don’t just lock them in a box, either. You give them programs, some human contact, some incentive to improve behavior and give them a pathway out.”

Even Governor Guillotine can live with that.

Why can’t we?

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com.