A group of incarcerated men at Massachusetts' maximum security prison told state officials in a letter last week that some prisoners were staging a hunger strike over conditions in a special unit of the prison the men claim is a form of solitary confinement.
The men are in custody in what's called the "Secure Adjustment Unit" at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster. In a letter to Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell, a copy of which was obtained by WBUR, the men said the conditions are "dire" and urged the AG to investigate.
Under the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018, state lawmakers placed limits on the use of solitary confinement and prohibited a prisoner from being held in solitary for more than six months.
The letter, dated Oct. 18, alleged that state Department of Correction officials have done nothing in response to the protest and "have made little effort to ameliorate the conditions" in the secure adjustment unit. The letter was signed by prisoner Elonsko Brown.
The Department of Correction acknowledged that some men said they were going on a hunger strike, but the men would not say why and refused medical and mental health assessments. The department said those prisoners are now accepting meals.
"The Department of Correction's top priority is the health and well-being of all living and working in our facilities," said an emailed statement from DOC Spokesman Jason Dobson. "The DOC has comprehensive policies and procedures to address when individuals decline meals as a form of protest. The Department immediately deploys mental health and medical staff to closely monitor an individual's health and welfare to ensure appropriate services are provided."
State Attorney General Campbell's office is reviewing the prisoners' letter, according to spokeswoman Molly McGlynn. "AG Campbell believes incarcerated people must be treated with dignity and live in fair and safe conditions," McGlynn said in an emailed statement. "The AG’s Office will continue to push for policies that ensure the humanity of all."
Prisoner advocates say at one point 19 men were participating in the hunger strike at Souza, largely over limited out-of-cell time and restrictions on their activities. The advocates say many of the men who protested had been transferred to Souza after the closure of MCI- Cedar Junction, which officially shut down in June because of a declining prison population.
Many men who'd been held in a disciplinary unit at MCI-Cedar Junction were moved to the secure adjustment unit at Souza. Advocates say the Souza unit is essentially "restrictive housing," or solitary confinement, because the men are allowed out of their cells for only a few hours a day and have fewer rights and privileges than those in the general prison population.
Last month, the Boston College Law School Civil Rights Clinic agreed to drop a lawsuit it had filed against the Department of Correction alleging that it was holding prisoners in restrictive housing at MCI-Cedar Junction for longer periods than allowed under the law.
The suit was dropped because the men were transferred to Souza, where advocates expected conditions to improve. They now say the unit at Souza is no better than where the men were held at MCI-Cedar Junction.
"The conditions are horrific and oppressive," said Reena Parikh, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Boston College Law. "Our clients are being subjected to indefinite solitary confinement."
Parikh is meeting with lawmakers and said further litigation is possible if conditions do not improve at Souza.
The Department of Correction said it has eliminated the use of restrictive housing in all of its facilities.