New rules on solitary confinement coming under fire

Advocates say DOC is subverting intent of reform law

LESS THAN A YEAR ago, Gov. Charlie Baker signed two comprehensive criminal justice bills that were the result of a marathon of bipartisan discussions over many years.

The laws contained a bucket list of reforms targeting tough-on-crime policies from decades ago. One part of the package eliminated some mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, while another raised the minimum age a child could be held criminally responsible and be tried in juvenile court from seven to 12. Judges were required to take into account a defendant’s ability to pay when setting bail, a new mandatory minimum sentence was created for assault and battery on a police officer, and a “fentanyl fix” was approved allowing law enforcement to go after traffickers of the drug.

One specific section of the legislation placed restrictions on the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, requiring periodic hearings to determine if inmates in segregation should remain there.

The Department of Corrections is writing new rules to adhere to the law, which also keeps pregnant women and inmates with “serious mental illness” out of segregation (even though they can technically be held there for 72 hours).

But advocates say the agency’s new rules don’t go far enough. At a public hearing on Tuesday, MassLive’s Shira Schoenberg reported that former inmates testified in front of Department of Corrections officials on the impact of solitary confinement. They said they contended with black mold, extreme cold, and guards who allegedly did “nasty stuff” to their food.

Nicholas Gomes, who spent 30 years in prison, said inmates get sent to solitary confinement for virtually any reason and the repeated use of segregation has terrible long-term consequences. “You think they’re going to come out of that room and come to your community and help your grandmother across the street?” Gomes asked. “No, that’s not going to happen. You’re creating monsters.”

Solitary confinement is now defined in Massachusetts as a space where an inmate is confined to a cell for 22 hours a day. The new law allows for certain visitation rights, showers three times a week, and periodic reviews of the inmate’s housing status.

What worries advocates for prison reform is that two new types of housing are being created, one called the “secure adjustment unit” and the other the “secure treatment unit,” where inmates, including those with mental illness, will be held for 21 hours a day.

The advocates say these units would be exempt from the criminal justice law’s protections. They want the Department of Corrections to reserve solitary confinement for extreme violent offenses.

“Unfortunately, these regulations make clear that instead of seizing the opportunity, the DOC intends to bring itself into technical compliance with the letter of the law while subverting the intention of the law and continuing to rely on solitary confinement as a lynchpin of its management practices,” said Jesse White, staff attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

While the DOC didn’t comment to MassLive, one of the leaders of the state Senate’s reform efforts did. Sen. Will Brownsberger says an independent oversight commission created by the law will keep tabs on what is going on.

“I’m initially trusting that those oversight mechanisms will do what we intended,” Brownsberger said.