The Hollywood version of solitary confinement — think of Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape” — doesn’t capture the real brutality of the practice. Prolonged isolation is so damaging to prisoners that the United Nations considers solitary that exceeds 15 days to be a form of torture. When two Massachusetts state senators requested permission to spend just 24 hours in solitary at one of the Commonwealth’s prisons, in order to witness the practice firsthand, they were told it wouldn’t be safe. It may not be possible to eliminate completely, but legislation to make solitary confinement much rarer and much shorter needs to be part of the state’s ongoing criminal justice reform initiative.
The practice has come under renewed scrutiny recently amid reports that the state improperly sent eight mentally ill prisoners to solitary confinement, apparently in violation of a 2012 commitment not to put sick prisoners in solitary. But even if the state were abiding by that modest agreement, it would leave openthe larger question of when and whether solitary confinement should be used in Massachusetts prisons at all. Excessive time in solitary can cause inmates to become unstable and depressed; they often suffer from panic, hallucinations, paranoia, and rage.
Under current practices, though,the state can put a prisoner in solitary for up to 10 years per offense, such as assaulting an officer or getting in a fight with a fellow inmate. There is no rehabilitation or pathway out offered. Massachusetts prison officials maintain that they need solitary as a disciplinary tool for problem prisoners, but most states manage to get by with much shorter isolation term limits. In Colorado, a 2011 study found that the share of inmates placed in solitary was about five times higher than the national average; they could also be placed there for years. But a series of reforms have been enacted there, including a ban on placing prisoners in isolation if they have mental illness, and requiring solitary placements to receive four hours of time outside their cell daily, reducing their length of stay, and instituting a step-down program for those with good behavior to be released to the general population. As a result, Colorado has decreased its use of solitary confinement by 85 percent and prisoner-on-staff assaults are the lowest in a decade.
Jamie Eldridge, one of the state senators who were denied permission to spend a day in solitary at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, filed legislation in the Legislature’s last session that would limit placement in segregation to 30 days, require hearings every 15 days that a prisoner is held in solitary, and prohibit the placement of deaf, blind, or pregnant prisoners into solitary. It also would have prohibited prison officials from putting inmates under 18 or with serious mental illness into solitary. The bill was sent for study last summer. But it could be revived if lawmakers broaden this year’s criminal-justice legislation into a holistic set of reforms that includes prison conditions.
It belongs in the larger discussion of ways to reduce recidivism, because the impact of long stays in solitary can make it even harder for former prisoners to readjust to society. Prison is not supposed to be easy, but nor is it supposed to be degenerative. It would be a clear missed opportunity if lawmakers didn’t curtail a practice that does no good for prisoners — and ultimately no good for the community after they’ve done their time.