Alone in The Dark: Solitary Confinement Reform in Massachusetts Prisons

BOSTON, Mass.—When it comes to solitary confinement, prison reform advocated believe some correctional facilities in Massachusetts are not doing their inmates justice.

An inmate in Massachusetts can be placed into solitary confinement for up to ten years.These inmates can be kept isolated for up to 23 hours a day. With no access to outside resources or other inmates, many believe these conditions cause or aggravate inmates’ mental and physical problems rather than helping them to rehabilitate.

Experts in the field came together on June 20 at the State House to discuss S1133/H1486: An Act Relative to the Appropriate Use of Solitary Confinement. Massachusetts Senator Jamie Eldridge and Representative Liz Malia co-sponsor the bill.

Psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Grassian testified at a packed hearing, pointing to research done by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Marine Corps on fighter pilots. Solitary confinement in small spaces leads to “delirium, violence [and] suicide,” he explained, “Hallucinations are probably common . . . formerly gregarious people become loners.”

“It’s like being locked in your bathroom. For years.” Said Leslie Walker, the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services and moderator for the panel.

The bill would limit the length of disciplinary segregation to a maximum of six months, with evaluations after 15 days. The inmate in solitary will have to meet certain conditions that are “related to the reasons for placement or retention in solitary.” The rest of the bill focuses on individualizing rehabilitation, treating inmates as patients rather than prisoners.

The bill will also boost mental health resources for inmates in solitary confinement. Mental health is a rising issue that is only exacerbated in prison, especially solitary confinement. However, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Corrections systems have increasingly relied on solitary confinement as a prison management tool.”

There are two types of solitary confinement: Disciplinary segregation and administrative segregation.

Disciplinary segregation is used to punish inmates who have broken prison rules but are still stable enough to live in the general prison population. Inmates in disciplinary segregation are not given a release date.

Administrative segregation, on the other hand, is used when an inmate poses a risk to other prisoners or is otherwise unfit to be in general prison population. When an inmate is placed in this kind of confinement, the prison will be given a set of conditions for their releases them back into the general population.

“It’s a humanitarian issue,” Senator Eldridge explained. With two prisons in his district, Eldridge wants to take a stand on poor prison standards, issues with rehabilitation, and human rights. “It’s really shocking that this is the policy we have in Massachusetts,” he said.

According to Representative Malia, it also costs more than twice as much to pay for an inmate in solitary confinement each year—over $100 thousand a year per solitary inamte.

Former inmate Jose Bou gave a personal testimony on solitary confinement. “It’s a weird thing, coming out of solitary,” he said. Incarcerated on drug charges, Bou said he was imprisoned for two years and spent most of his time in solitary confinement.

Currently a youth counselor at Roca, Inc. in Springfield, Bou’s story is one of struggle and deprivation, a tale about a broken system he says needs to be fixed.

“Suddenly you’re by yourself . . . . You don’t have access to education. If you don’t have a Bible or someone doesn’t write, you might not read anything.” Bou spoke about the anxiety of being in solitary and the lack of educational resources. “I believe in education as rehabilitation,” he said.

For supporters of this legislation, Massachusetts prisons are the ones who really need to be educated.

–Jonathan Igne-Bianchi





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