Can Massachusetts break its longstanding bond with solitary confinement?
That question was supposed to have been settled in 2018. As the state enacted sweeping criminal justice reforms, one feature of the new law was a concerted effort to drive down the number of prisoners being held under restrictive conditions.
Solitary confinement is an age-old practice in our penal system. Prisoners deemed to present a risk to other prisoners, or who have too often run afoul of regulations, run the risk of spending up to 22 hours a day alone in a tiny cell, segregated from the general population of the facility they are in. Just about all prisons and houses of correction in the state use it to some degree.
But along with the reforms to other outdated policies was a mandate to curb — not end, but reduce — solitary confinement.
This is where we are now: The Department of Correction has instituted changes that are widely viewed as an end run around the new law, policies that allow for 21 hours a day of solitary confinement rather than 22. Regulations for reviewing the status of prisoners in solitary have stalled.
A commission created under the law to review and implement the new policy has yet to hold a single meeting, or even to announce who its members will be.
Does that strike you as a robust commitment to change?
“They were given a mandate, and I don’t think they’ve taken it seriously,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, an advocacy group for the incarcerated.
The number of prisoners affected is substantial. While data on solitary confinement has historically been spotty, the Department of Correction reported to the Legislature last year that roughly 3,200 inmates had spent time in solitary in the first six months of the year. (A follow-up report has not been released yet.) More than 200 of those inmates were placed in solitary for two months or more.
What’s so bad about solitary confinement? It’s fundamentally inhumane to deprive prisoners of human contact for extended periods of time. There’s little evidence that it helps make facilities safer in the long run. And people who run prisons have other, less draconian, ways to address challenging behavior — like suspending canteen or visitation privileges.
Senator William Brownsberger, who was a driving force behind the years-long criminal justice reform effort, told me Tuesday that he is most concerned that the committee that was supposed to help implement and monitor changes to solitary confinement is nowhere to be seen.
Brownsberger said the state of Maine has reduced the use of solitary confinement by 90 percent.
“It wasn’t an easy process,” Brownsberger told me. “It requires a lot of focus. Managing a prison is not easy, and I respect that. But I do believe [solitary confinement] can be used much less, and for shorter durations, and that’s what we’re trying to get to.”
I attempted to speak to the Baker administration Tuesday about its commitment to reducing the use of solitary confinement. But a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which oversees the Correction Department, didn’t return multiple calls.
To a striking degree, the push to curb solitary confinement has been driven by people who have survived it. One former prisoner who spent five years of his incarceration in solitary told me he thought being held alone — with a TV and static-filled radio for company — would be a breeze.
But then the television began speaking to him. Just to him.
“Static wasn’t just static,” Bobby Dellelo told me. “It was speaking in code.” It took years, he said, to recover from the paranoia.
Last year’s law proved that, finally, there’s a bipartisan consensus to do better, to behave more compassionately to people behind bars. But better policy isn’t enough. This is also a test of will — one that the state, so far, seems to be failing.
Update: Following publication of this column, the Department of Correction issued the following statement:
“The DOC is committed to ensuring the safe confinement of inmates in our custody and has been working diligently to effectively implement the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018. The written comments submitted on the regulations are currently under review.”