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Mass. DOC Moves To End Solitary Confinement

The Massachusetts Department of Correction says it is taking steps to end restrictive housing, which it defines as a prisoner being held in a cell for more than 22 hours a day.

The move follows an independent report that recommended ending the practice as it's currently defined, as well as other changes.

The department says it will eliminate restrictive housing in all prisons over the next three years. Instead, the DOC says it will address disruptive behavior by focusing on the needs of those in its custody and will connect prisoners with "appropriate programming and treatment opportunities" and "identify the behavioral and clinical criminogenic needs of those within the Department's care."

The DOC says it is still evaluating the costs involved.

The independent report by Falcon Correctional and Community Services, Inc. says with the exception of prisoners who are documented to behave dangerously, no prison housing unit should operate "under conditions of confinement that require placement in a cell 22 or more hours per day."

The report says doing away with restrictive housing "represents the future of disciplinary and administrative segregation," and notes that the DOC has already reduced the number of beds for men in its restrictive housing units by 20% since July 2019. There is no restrictive housing for women in state custody.

“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,” said DOC Commissioner Carol Mici in a statement. “While this report offers us a detailed roadmap, our continued relationship with Falcon will strengthen our ability to deliver the best correctional practices.”

The Falcon report was done over the past year, based on visits to five prisons and interviews with DOC and correctional staff, prisoners, formerly incarcerated people and advocates. While the report praised the state DOC, calling it a "leader in in correctional policy and practice across the United States," it called for a "philosophical shift" toward rehabilitation.

The most criticism in the report is aimed at the use of the so-called Department Disciplinary Unit (DDU), where prisoners are sent for longer-term disciplinary confinement. The report says the men confined in the DDU can stay for months or years and that "minimizes the interests of rehabilitation." It says the men held in the DDU were the "most vocal about their conditions of confinement and had the perception that they were being warehoused and unfairly punished."

The investigators suggest a new process for those prisoners deemed dangerous, in which they could be placed in protective custody temporarily.

Erick Williams, 45, of Fall River was released from prison eight years ago after spending eight years in the DDU. He spoke with the Falcon investigators during their research and says he's ecstatic about the recommendation to close the DDU. Williams says he is still getting mental health treatment for the trauma he experienced there.

"You're in DDU, you're by yourself, you're shackled, you're cuffed to go to showers, you go to dog-like kennels for recreation," Williams said. "I think being around people now without being restricted, like seeing a hand move and being close to people and loud noises and things of that nature — you're stressing and worrying about being attacked."

For years, prisoners' rights advocates have been calling for changes to restrictive housing policies and the DDU. They say the DOC changed the term to "restrictive housing " rather than "solitary confinement" after the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act reduced the use of solitary confinement.

Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts officials say they're "cautiously optimistic" about report's recommendations.

"The DDU is unique in that it's one of the few units in the country actually where you can be sentenced for up to 10 years for disciplinary offense and solitary confinement, and we have been outliers in Massachusetts in that practice for a long time," says Liz Matos, executive director of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. "It's been a disgrace for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to still have a practice like this and we're very happy to see that there's a plan to close it."

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Last year, the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report that found the DOC was violating the constitutional rights of mentally ill prisoners with prolonged "mental health watches" in restrictive housing. The Falcon report says "while the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and MADOC specifically exclude Mental Health Watch from the legal and regulatory definitions of Restrictive Housing, the conditions of confinement in practice equate to Restrictive Housing by another name."

The investigators urge the state to fully investigate the DOJ report and "examine healthcare effectiveness, safety, and quality for those accessing the medical observation and Mental Health Watch."

The DOC has said it is working to improve mental health treatment for those in its custody.

Aside from eliminating restrictive housing and the DDU, the report makes nine other recommendations, including expanding programming and treatment, particularly for substance use disorders.

The DOC says it has already started implementing some of the recommendations. Falcon will continue to work with the DOC and advocates say they will monitor the changes.

Some state lawmakers say they're also eager to hear more details about how changes will be made in prison discipline. State Rep. Liz Miranda says the changes should be made quickly.

"We cannot wait three years," Miranda said. "We need a plan, metrics, and tangible action items the DOC will take in ending solitary conditions and justice for the survivors who’ve already lived through this torture."

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, co-chair of the Legislature's judiciary committee, calls the report a positive first step and says he will be monitoring how the changes will be implemented. He says there will be a briefing with lawmakers and DOC officials to go over some of the details.

"We hear from the families of incarcerated people every day and we've heard about the problems of solitary confinement," Eldridge said. "But the DOC has not been willing to make any significant changes. That's why you know I'm encouraged by this report but the proof is in the pudding."

This article was originally published on June 30, 2021.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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