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Curtailing solitary confinement

In the area of prison reform, perhaps no method of incarceration has been more controversial than solitary confinement. Prisoner rights advocates have long argued that solitary confinement — the segregation of individual prisoners in small cells for up to 23 hours a day — is inhumane. Correctional officers, meanwhile, have seen solitary confinement as an important tool for disciplining unruly or dangerous inmates.

But attitudes and practices regarding solitary confinement are changing. In July, President Obama ordered a Justice Department review of the practice, asking, “Do we really think it makes sense to lock up so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?” Then, last month, the state of California settled a federal class action suit, effectively ending long-term solitary confinement in all state prisons. Shortly thereafter, the Association of State Correctional Administrators — whose membership had traditionally supported solitary confinement — called “prolonged isolation in jails and prisons . . . a grave problem in the United States.” The statement declared a commitment to efforts “to limit or end extended isolation.” (It should be noted that a 2011 United Nations report stated that solitary confinement for more than 15 days could constitute torture.) And now, it appears, based on recent written opinions by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Anthony M. Kennedy, that the Supreme Court may be looking for a proper vehicle with which to rule on the constitutionality of the practice.


In the current climate, Massachusetts is an outlier — one of only a handful of states that holds prisoners in disciplinary solitary confinement for up to 10 years. That needs to change.

State Senator James Eldridge of Acton has submitted an omnibus bill that could begin modernizing the state’s policy. The bill (an expanded version of a 2013 bill that died in committee) calls for significant reforms in the use of both disciplinary and nondisciplinary “administrative” solitary confinement. While disciplinary segregation is used to punish infractions of prison rules, administrative segregation is used for a variety of reasons — including as a way to segregate prisoners awaiting transfer to another facility or to separate those with mental illness or to hold prisoners while investigating a disciplinary charge.


Eldridge’s bill (which is being complemented in the House by a bill from Representative Elizabeth Malia of Jamaica Plain and comes before the joint Committee on the Judiciary in an open hearing on Oct. 14) calls for explicit limits to the use of solitary, restricting disciplinary segregation to 15 days for one offense, except in limited circumstances in which it is demonstrated that the prisoner is a danger to himself or others. The bill also calls for the deployment of mental health professionals, rather than solitary confinement, to deal with prisoners who suffer from mental illness, and for rehabilitative reentry programs for solitary confinement prisoners who will be released from prison within six months, to ease the transition to the outside world. Currently, “they’re released directly to the street,” said Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, one of the primary backers of the bill. “They’re suffering from sensory deprivation and any clear sense of control over their lives.”

By reducing unnecessary harm done to prisoners who are one day going to be released back into the community, the bill would enhance public safety. And, of course, it would save taxpayers money by reducing the number of special units created and staffed for segregated prisoners. Massachusetts should join the growing national effort to limit solitary confinement.