FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
BOSTON – November 28, 2023 – Following a weeks-long hunger strike at Massachusetts’ maximum security prison, a group of legislators and advocacy organizations have joined the call for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (AGO) to investigate the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC). The legislators’ letter, delivered to the AGO on November 24, 2023, is the latest in a series of calls requesting that the AGO take action.
The call for an investigation began on October 19, 2023 when the AGO received a letter signed by nine incarcerated individuals who had participated in a hunger strike in protest of the inhumane conditions in the Secure Adjustment Unit (SAU) at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC), located in Shirley, Massachusetts.
On November 3, 2023, twenty legal and advocacy organizations also sent a letter to the AGO in support of incarcerated hunger strikers’ request for an investigation, outlining questions surrounding the legality of DOC practices within the SAU at SBCC.
Both legislators and advocates stated in their respective letters that despite DOC’s pronouncement that restrictive housing (RH) (also known as solitary confinement) units no longer exist within DOC since the closure of the Disciplinary Detention Unit (DDU) at MCI-Cedar Junction, RH still exists as many of the individuals incarcerated in the DDU were transferred to the SAU at SBCC, a unit very similar to the DDU. The persistence of these alleged conditions in the new SAUs flout Massachusetts law in a variety of ways.
Legislators described how mounting evidence leads them to believe that conditions within the SAU at SBCC violate the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA). Their ongoing efforts to conduct oversight over the DOC or ensure compliance of the CRJA is limited. The potential violation of the DOC’s legal obligations prompted the legislators to echo the incarcerated hunger strikers’ and advocacy organizations’ call for the AGO to investigate.
MA State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven said that, “In the past month, over 15 state legislators including myself have met directly with two of the hunger strikers in the SAU at SBCC, Tykorie Evelyn and Elosko Brown. We have heard them loud and clear – they are regularly confined in some kind of cell, cage, or shackled for over 22 hours per day with no end date in sight for when they will be released from solitary confinement. We are deeply concerned that this is in violation of the CRJA’s protections for individuals held in RH. We look forward to continue working with the AG to investigate and take all steps necessary to ensure DOC complies with the law.”
Advocates also allege that the following DOC practices within the SAU at SBCC violate the CJRA, the state constitution, and other civil rights laws: (1) indefinite confinement for up to 6 years in conditions equivalent to restrictive housing, without placement reviews; (2) highly restrictive conditions, including limited out of cell time, the use of restraints for nearly all held in the unit while out of cell; privileges far beneath the general population, including: extremely limited access to visits (through glass only) and telephone calls, worsening the isolation; paltry rehabilitative programing; and restrictions on food and hygiene purchases from the canteen; and (3) unlawful retaliation in the form of violent assaults against those who have engaged in protected speech by voicing their concerns about the SAU conditions. As described in the hunger strikers’ letter, many months of enduring these DOC practices in the SAU was part of what precipitated the hunger strike.
Elokso Brown, who was among the hunger strikers and is currently incarcerated in the SAU at SBBC explained that, “DOC leadership is failing all of us in the SAU, because they are ignoring the law and not giving us due process – we need the AGO to investigate the fact that we are being kept in restrictive housing for years without a real chance to get released after 90 days like the law requires – even DOC is not above the law.”
Advocates noted DOC’s continued imposition of conditions equivalent to RH without complying with the protections of the CJRA, and credible reports of widespread abuse by correctional officers in the SAU. They have asked the AGO to (1) open a formal investigation into the lawfulness of DOC’s practices in the SAU at SBCC, including the widespread use of retaliatory and unnecessary force, and take any remedial action that may be appropriate; and (2) support the passage of the “Rehabilitation, Reentry and Human Rights Act” S.1493/H.2325, which aims to establish universal baseline conditions for all those incarcerated in Massachusetts, including establishing meaningful out-of-cell time, expanding programming, educational, and vocational opportunities.
“The claims in the strikers’ letter mirror harsh conditions that have been reported to our organization for years,” asserted Bonnie Tenneriello, a Senior Staff Attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts. “The extreme, punitive conditions described in the strikers’ letter are imposed as a regular housing assignment, not based on a disciplinary conviction. This is arguably worse than prior forms of restrictive housing. And it is a recipe for conflict, not rehabilitation.”
Tykorie Evelyn, also among those who participated in the hunger strike and currently incarcerated in the SAU at SBBC added, “Accountability has to flow in both directions – I am taking the steps I can to set myself up for success in here and for when I am back in my community, but DOC has to do its part to support us by following the law and providing those of us in the SAU with basic human rights and meaningful educational and vocational programming.”
Justin Cedeno, a member of the Boston College Law School Civil Rights Clinic, said that, “Incarcerated individuals under the supervision of our state prisons were forced to resort to a two week long hunger strike in pursuit of the safeguards they were promised when the CJRA was enacted in 2018. Nevertheless, half a decade later, we find ourselves still grappling with the same systemic issues of solitary confinement and inhumane living conditions in our prisons. We urge the Attorney General’s office to investigate the conditions in the SAU at SBCC and take immediate action to help end the DOC’s open disregard for established law.”
Aaron Steinberg, Communications Director
Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts
(617) 482-2773 x 6838
Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts’ mission is to challenge the carceral system through litigation, advocacy, client counseling, partnership with impacted individuals and communities, and outreach to policymakers and the public in order to promote the human rights of incarcerated persons and end harmful confinement.
Reena Parikh, Esq., Director and Supervising Attorney
Civil Rights Clinic
Boston College Legal Services LAB
The BC Law Civil Rights Clinic is part of the Boston College Legal Services LAB, a fully functioning law firm within BC Law that provides legal services in the community to clients with a variety of legal issues.