In late January, President Obama announced historic changes in how the federal prison system uses solitary confinement—or “segregation” as it is euphemistically called within Massachusetts’ prison system. He cited research showing that the practice can lead to “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.” Solitary confinement, he said, “doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.” The reforms stem from a Department of Justice (DOJ) study that sets forth best practices for correctional facilities in general, and made specific recommendations for the federal Bureau of Prisons.
President Obama acted at the federal level, but he does not stand alone. States across the country have reduced their reliance on solitary confinement—and in the process improved the prison climate and inmates’ prospects for re-entering successfully into their communities. Yet Massachusetts has stood on the sidelines, failing to reform its use of disciplinary segregation (punishment for violating prison rules) or administrative segregation (removal from the general population for non-disciplinary reasons). While many think only the “worst of the worst” are in solitary, in fact mentally ill prisoners are often sent there for non-violent offenses such as refusing a direct order or disruptive conduct.
Indeed, Massachusetts is one of a handful of states with disciplinary segregation sentences of up to ten years per offense. That’s up to ten years in the Departmental Disciplinary Unit (DDU), a prison within a prison, in a cell the size of a parking space, with only five hours a week out of your cell in a small outdoor cage that looks like a dog run. No rehabilitative programs and no hope of early release, no matter how well you behave. Conditions are just as harsh for the hundreds of state and county prisoners held in “administrative segregation.” They may be the victim of a rape, waiting for an out of state transfer, under investigation, or in danger from other prisoners.
What can be done to change this state of affairs? It’s actually not too complicated. The DOJ report provides a roadmap, and Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts recently wrote a letter to Governor Charlie Baker outlining concrete next steps – Read about them here.