Family members and others opposed to solitary confinement urged Massachusetts lawmakers Monday to restrict its use in jails and prisons.
Critics say the state has some of the nation's harshest solitary confinement policies, allowing inmates to be placed in segregated disciplinary units for as long as 10 years.
Members of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee heard proposals Monday to limit solitary confinement to cases where an inmate poses a clear threat to the general prison population.
Other bills call for improving conditions in segregation units and requiring correctional facilities disclose more information about solitary confinement.
"You need to make sure someone poses a threat in order to keep them in segregation, and you have to give them a pathway out," said Bonita Tenneriello, an attorney for Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts. "You have to give them some kind of programming to address their behavioral problems."
Jill Laganas said her son, Billy, spent 364 continuous days in solitary confinement -- at least 23 hours a day in his cell -- while serving a sentence for armed robbery. She said he son lost 25 pounds and wrote to her saying, "what they are doing to me in here is ruining my mind."
"On the phone I could feel the spirit being sucked right out of him," said Laganas. "His anxiety attacks became an everyday occurrence."
She said at one point he cut his arms to get out of solitary and receive medical treatment. Less than three months after being released from prison last year she said he accidentally overdosed on fentanyl and died at age 37. Laganas said she feels his time in solitary contributed to his death.
The Department of Correction, which oversees state prisons, has regulation requiring a hearing within 30 days for inmates referred to a segregation unit.
The guidelines state inmates must pose a "substantial threat" to other people in the prison, or to the safe operation of the facility. It also says inmates should be sent to isolation for "administrative" reasons only.
Tenneriello says the department has failed to adhere to its own regulations, and her group has sued the agency.
A spokesman for the Department of Correction did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said he would have to look at the details of the bills.
"I can tell you that's been dramatically reduced over the course of the past couple of years and typically is only used if it's designed to actually protect somebody from others or to protect themselves," Baker said.
Proposed legislation also would require that conditions within segregation units be as humane as possible and that inmates in solitary have access to the same programs and services other prisoners receive.
Critics argue overuse of solitary confinement is more expensive and doesn't reduce the risk of violence in prisons. They say other states have reduced their dependence on segregation units.
A group representing the state's sheriffs, who oversee county lockups that typically hold inmates serving shorter sentences or those awaiting trial for serious crimes, said it already was updating policies to ensure limited use of solitary confinement.
The sheriffs "agree with the proponents of these bills that use of isolation needs to occur in as human a manner as possible and must be limited to those instances where it protects the safety of inmates and staff," said James Walsh, executive director of the Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association.
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