About one in five inmates was placed in solitary confinement during 2018, alarming prisoner rights advocates and legislators who have criticized the practice as Draconian and called on corrections officials to reduce its prevalence.
Last year, at least 2,100 male and female prisoners were placed in isolation at least once, according to biannual reports provided by the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Most inmates remained there for 30 days or fewer, although about one-third were placed in isolation multiple times.
“This is a staggeringly high number and shows that many people are placed in solitary for minor infractions of prison rules,” said James Pingeon, a staff attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services, which advocates for the rights of inmates in state custody. “It is dismaying and it confirms what we see as a lot of foot-dragging and resistance by the department to truly implement reforms.”
Under the state’s sweeping criminal justice overhaul passed last year, the agency is required to provide lawmakers biannual reports about the use of solitary confinement, including the length of stints and the number of people under 21 or with diagnosed mental health problems who are placed in the units.
Amid growing concerns over the psychological impact of solitary confinement, legislators required the agency to adopt due process procedures and expand mental health services for prisoners confined to their cells more than 22 hours a day.
Corrections officials said last year’s figures do not reflect the major changes prison staff have made to isolation policies since the new law was signed by Governor Charlie Baker in April 2018.
Inmates in isolation, which the department calls “restrictive housing” and where inmates are allowed outside their cell one hour a day five days a week, are now given computer tablets or radios as well as snacks from the canteen in their cells, benefits they did not have before, officials said.
The department has also created alternatives to restrictive housing called “diversionary units” that allow disciplined inmates to be out of their cells for up to 35 hours a week, officials said.
“Through the implementation of reforms prescribed in the recent criminal justice law, the Department of Correction looks forward to further reducing the roughly 3 percent of inmates in restrictive housing at any given time,” said Jason Dobson, a spokesman for the department.
By January, the state’s prison population had dipped to 8,784, the lowest level in at least 10 years, but corrections officials noted the number fluctuated throughout 2018.
The number of prisoners cited in the biannual reports do not include those placed in what is known as the disciplinary detention unit, the most restrictive form of segregation that is reserved for inmates accused of serious infractions. The agency reported last month that there were 97 men being held in that unit.
Those inmates can be kept in isolation for up to 10 years and get only one hour outside of their cells a day five days a week, unless they have serious mental illness or receive special dispensation from the superintendent. Under the new law, men sentenced to the disciplinary unit must have their cases reviewed every three months to determine whether they can safely be reassigned.
State Senator William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who pushed for the criminal justice reform law, said he would like to see more sweeping changes to that unit, especially as other states are drastically reducing the number of people placed in long-term isolation.
“The concern comes not because someone is in there for 48 hours, but because someone is in there for 10 years,” Brownsberger said. “Right now, my sense is that only limited progress has been made in terms of really reducing the population [in the disciplinary unit].”
State Senator James B. Eldridge, chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said he suspects the department has created the diversionary units to sidestep the new requirement that people in segregation receive more mental health services and education programs.
“The Legislature clearly had the intent to improve the services and rights of prisoners in solitary confinement and that is being pretty blatantly ignored,” said Eldridge, an Acton Democrat. “I feel strongly that the Department of Correction is thumbing its nose at the Legislature’s solitary confinement reforms.”
Department officials have denied that is their intent, saying inmates who have been moved to the diversionary units are now free to congregate with other inmates, take classes, and seek mental health counseling.
Erick Williams spent eight years in solitary confinement in the disciplinary unit, where inmates could only make outside calls a maximum of four times a month. Conversations with visitors took place behind glass and nearly the entire day was spent inside a cell with no physical access to other human beings.
“Imagine locking yourself in the bathroom and that’s it for the next 10 years,” Williams said. “Hell, hell, hell is what comes to mind when I think about [disciplinary detention unit] and solitary.”
Williams, who served a total of 18 years for two armed assaults, was released six years ago and is working as a maintenance man in Fall River, where he lives with his 4-year-old son.
After he was released from the disciplinary unit, Williams said, he was prescribed mood stabilizers to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He recalled seeing some men so stressed that within two weeks of their placement in solitary, they had tried to slit their wrists.
“It’s the isolation that gets you,” Williams said. “It feels like neglect, like nobody gives a [expletive] about you.”
Prison officials have pushed back on the term “solitary confinement,” arguing that it refers to a time when inmates were not allowed any time out of a cell for any purpose other than visits with their attorneys.
Said Dobson: “Solitary confinement is not and has not been used by the department for decades.”
Maria Cramer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.