Department of Correction moves to end solitary confinement


June 29, 2021
CommonWealth Magazine
By Shira Schoenberg

THE MASSACHUSETTS Department of Correction on Tuesday announced its intention to end solitary confinement as currently constituted within three years, based on the recommendations of an independent consultant. 

“This comprehensive review process was guided by input from a wide range of stakeholders, and the recommendations have put the Massachusetts Department of Correction on a path to eliminating restrictive housing across the system,” said Public Safety and Security Secretary Thomas Turco in a statement. 

But the department did not lay out details about what specific steps it would take and when, leading some advocates to question what exactly the announcement means. 

Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the department intends to end restrictive housing. But, she said, “We don’t have enough details right now to know what this really means and what those things will be replaced by.” The 41-page report by Falcon, a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in mental health treatment in corrections, was submitted to the Department of Correction in March, but only released publicly Tuesday evening. The report recommended the outright elimination of the Department Disciplinary Unit – the harshest form of restrictive housing in use today – and other changes that could ultimately result in ending all forms of solitary confinement. 

The report defined restrictive housing as keeping a person in their cell at least 22 hours a day. Massachusetts state prisons have around 450 restrictive housing beds for men. Women are not kept in restrictive housing. On several dates studied by the report, there were around 300 men in restrictive housing, around half of whom had serious mental illness. The average length of stay was 18 days. 

There are several types of restrictive housing, used for reasons that include discipline and mental health treatment. In interviews, some of the men placed there expressed frustration with indefinite placements and no clear explanation of how long they would be kept there and why. All interviewees – administrators and offenders – agreed there was a need for more programming for people in restrictive units. One former inmate told investigators that he spent five years in restrictive housing with no programming – although he noted that was before recent reforms. 

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