Earlier this month, the state of California settled a lawsuit with prisoners in the notorious Pelican Bay prison, promising to overhaul the way inmates are kept in solitary confinement. Under the settlement, prisoners can be held in isolation units only for serious infractions (such as weapons possession or attempted escape), not simply because they are suspected of belonging to a gang or for minor rules violations, and their time in solitary will be limited and regularly reviewed.
The landmark settlement comes as several states and at least one US Supreme Court justice are urging reconsideration of the practice of solitary confinement. Repeated studies have shown that long-term commitment to solitary can lead to mental collapse, including suicide, delirium, and hallucinations, even in people who had no mental illness beforehand. In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture said that solitary confinement can constitute torture when it exceeds 15 days.
Yet there are places in the United States where people are kept in segregation for 10 years. That’s 10 years without meaningful contact with other human beings, 10 years of only thrice-weekly showers, of 23-hour lockup with exercise in a caged dog run. Inmates can be sent into these toxic cells for infractions that might include engaging in a work stoppage; and no one outside of the state corrections department knows exactly how many prisoners are in these units, or for how long.
Where could this possibly be happening? Why, it’s Massachusetts.
“It’s embarrassing to say but we have one of the most outdated prison systems in the country,” says state Senator Jamie Eldridge, who has two prisons in his district on the Shirley-Lancaster line. Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states that maintain a separate “disciplinary” segregation practice that can send prisoners to isolation units for 10 years. A long list of potential infractions can result in extended stretches in isolation, including over-broad categories such as “conduct that interferes with the orderly running of the institution.”
Let us stipulate that prisons are violent places and that brutal inmates must sometimes be segregated to protect other inmates and staff. But keeping people wedged alone in cells for a decade is dehumanizing and does nothing to rehabilitate prisoners or protect society from criminal offenders, most of whom eventually will be released to the streets.
Thanks to recent court decisions, Massachusetts has agreed to limit solitary confinement for inmates with severe mental illness. This is an imperfect if important reform, because mental health screenings don’t catch everything, and a condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder may not be “severe” enough to protect an inmate from solitary. Last year a 35-year-old inmate committed suicide in Cedar Junction’s Departmental Disciplinary Unit, according to Leslie Walker, director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. He had been kept there for 11 months even though he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
In October, the Legislature will hear bills from Eldridge and others that would restrict the use of segregation units, provide for timely hearings, and require quarterly reporting of prison data to the legislature regarding inmates in solitary. These reforms are well within the national trend. Last year 10 states adopted measures aimed at curtailing solitary, abolishing it for pregnant women or those under 21, or gradually easing restrictions to include more time interacting with other inmates and staff. Even the Association of State Correctional Administrators has called prolonged isolation “a grave problem” and backed certain reforms, though prison guard unions mostly say it is a necessary tool for maintaining safety and control.
The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. But in June, Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed to invite a challenge when he wrote that the sanction “exacts a terrible price,” and may require court action to decide “whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.”
As with the nation’s slow abandonment of the death penalty, reforms to solitary confinement will likely begin with vulnerable populations – minors, the mentally incompetent – prompted by court orders and growing public abhorrence toward the practice. Rather than lagging behind other states, Massachusetts should be a leader in human rights and press the prison system toward justice.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.