What’s the state Department of Correction so afraid of?
Its new rules on the use of solitary confinement and a gag rule for an oversight committee charged with playing watchdog over its implementation are embarrassing for a state that was once a leader in prison reform.
If these “emergency regulations” are actually allowed to remain in effect, the Baker administration will have solidified its reputation as the least transparent since Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge occupied the Corner Office.
The rules in question stem from the trailblazing Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018, which tackled a host of thorny issues, including use of solitary confinement — or “restrictive housing,” as it is known in corrections. Solitary confinement can be harsh punishment, and its use should be rare and strictly regulated. To that end, the law created due process procedures for those confined to their cells for more than 22 hours a day.
It also created an 11-member Restrictive Housing Oversight Committee that includes, by statute, representatives of the Disability Law Center, the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, and the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, plus, of course representatives from the corrections system.
So far, so good, right?
Then, back in March, the Department of Correction began its steady efforts to undo much of what the legislation had attempted. It created “Secure Adjustment Units” to which inmates could be confined up to 21 hours a day and simply redefined them as not “restrictive housing.”
As state Senator Jamie Eldridge, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, put it in a letter to Secretary of Public Safety and Security Thomas Turco, “[t]he creation of Secure Adjustment Units is inconsistent with the spirit of the CJRA [Criminal Justice Reform Act]. The legislation did not intend for the DOC to immediately circumvent the restrictive housing definition with new units.”
So any inmates in those newly renamed units would not be entitled to, for example, the 90-day placement review called for in the legislation.
And in keeping with the DOC’s efforts to do an end run around the law, the agency has drafted “emergency regulations” — in effect until at least the end of August — that would make a toothless tiger of the Oversight Committee.
As first reported by Shira Schoenberg at masslive.com, by renaming the units and insisting that only whatever remains of truly “restrictive units” comes under the committee’s purview makes its role virtually meaningless.
The regulations further restrict access by committee members, prohibit surprise visits to facilities, and prohibit committee members from talking to the press or the public without the consent of the committee chair. That would be the secretary of public safety himself.
“The ability to speak freely to the press and to the public is the bedrock of a functioning democracy,” Eldridge wrote in his letter to Turco. “It is also a cornerstone of effective oversight.”
No committee member gives up his or her First Amendment rights — especially when part of the mission of the committee is to shine a light on conditions under which inmates are being kept and to keep the Legislature informed about them.
Members of the committee should have unfettered access to DOC facilities. It is as critical to their mission as the ability to speak out about what they have seen.
Sure, prison security is important — important to protect prisoners themselves. But in much of what it does lately — including a host of new restrictions on prison visitors — the Department of Correction fails to acknowledge that many of these inmates will indeed be returning to their communities.
The 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act was intended in ways big and small to make incarceration more humane, more just, and. for many, a path to a more productive post-incarceration life. It’s time DOC implements not just the letter but the spirit of that law.