Department of Correction moves to end solitary confinement
Provides few specifics, but promises three-year timeline
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 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.
According to the report, the Department Disciplinary Unit – described as a unit “whose aim was punitive long-term super-maximum confinement” – was the subject of the most complaints, with one person telling investigators, “If you treat me like an animal, I’m going to act like an animal.” The report said people can remain in the disciplinary unit for months or even years, experiencing an “innately punitive culture” that “minimizes the interests of rehabilitation or positive change” to address the factors that led them to the unit. Because someone has a right to a hearing before being sent to the disciplinary unit, inmates often experience long waits in other restrictive housing units while they await investigations and hearings.
The report recommended the complete elimination of the Department Disciplinary Unit, with inmates being moved to other housing units and considered for programming to address their problems. It recommended considering eliminating restrictive housing altogether, which would involve providing every incarcerated person with more than two hours of out-of-cell time each day. For those deemed imminently dangerous, there could be a new process designed to keep them in protective custody temporarily.
The report also says there needs to be a “philosophical shift” where the department addresses the factors that led to an offender’s infraction in the first place. This could include treatment for substance use disorders or programming related to violence risk reduction, with in-person and tablet-based programs. Officers working in specialized housing units – like those providing mental health treatment – should get special training.
Advocates have been pushing for years to end solitary confinement. The consultants from Falcon praised the DOC for being willing to review the practice and make a change without a lawsuit, which has often been the main impetus for correctional practices to change.
Elizabeth Falcon, CEO and founder of Falcon, said Massachusetts’ announcement “is an extraordinary step forward, and sets an example for other states also considering this important change in corrections.”
“The Department of Correction has worked hard to develop creative solutions to the challenge of restrictive housing. Falcon’s independent analysis is a crucial step toward long-term, lasting change,” Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici said in a statement.
But Matos said there are not a lot of details so far about what the department is actually doing – and what might replace solitary confinement. Prisoners’ Legal Services has long accused the Department of Correction of trying to thwart more progressive criminal justice policies that were passed in a 2018 reform law, including policies aimed at limiting the use of solitary confinement and improving conditions for prisoners held there. “We are cautiously optimistic, but we’re also waiting for the details and going to be monitoring the situation and doing what we can as always to hold the DOC accountable to what it’s saying it’s going to do,” Matos said.State Reps. Brandy Fluker Oakley and Liz Miranda, Boston Democrats who have been pushing for limits on the use of solitary confinement, said in a joint statement that the Falcon report “was shocking, but unsurprising.” “Punishing people with prolonged isolation is inhumane no matter what we call it- solitary confinement, restrictive housing, mental health watch, or whatever DOC calls its next solitary-like condition,” Fluker Oakley and Miranda said.
Fluker Oakley and Miranda called on DOC to implement the changes recommended in the report immediately, and shift department culture. “Even today, the DOC has failed to commit to a clear timeline to implement the recommendations of the Falcon Report or metric to measure success, and we must demand better,” they wrote. “We cannot afford to wait another second longer when we are aware of the ongoing atrocities that have been going on for years.”