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Massachusetts Supreme Court: 90 Days in Segregation on Awaiting Action Status without Hearing Violates Due Process

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has ruled that prisoners held in segregated confinement on “awaiting action” status are entitled to due process protections, and such prisoners may not be kept in segregation longer than 90 days without a hearing.

The Court’s November 27, 2012 decision resolved a civil rights action brought by Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC) prisoner Edmund LaChance. LaChance was in a protective custody unit at SBCC when he received a disciplinary report on December 21, 2005 for throwing a cup of pudding on another prisoner.

He was assigned to SBCC’s special management unit (SMU) for seven days as a sanction. After learning of the punishment, LaChance “threatened to commit violence” against the other prisoner, which resulted in another seven-day SMU term. However, he remained in the SMU on awaiting action status for more than ten months after his 14-day disciplinary sanction ended; during that period he received “only informal status reviews.” He was returned to the protective custody unit in November 2006.

After five months in the SMU, LaChance filed suit. He claimed the segregation conditions were more restrictive than in the protective custody unit and were substantially similar to those in the Departmental Segregation Unit (DSU). The superior court agreed and found LaChance’s due process rights had been violated when he was denied the procedural protections afforded by DSU regulations.

The superior court therefore granted partial summary judgment to LaChance on his claim for declaratory relief. The court further granted the defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgment on claims for damages in their official capacity, but held they were not entitled to qualified immunity in their individual capacity. The defendants appealed and the Supreme Court transferred the case to its docket.

The Court agreed with the superior court that LaChance’s ten-month stint in the SMU gave rise to a liberty interest that entitled him to due process protections, as the conditions of confinement in the SMU “constituted the sort of ‘atypical and significant hardship’ that triggers a right to procedural safeguards,” and “bore notable similarities to conditions which the United States Supreme Court has described as ‘synonymous with extreme isolation.’”

LaChance was never given a hearing or advised what steps he could take to mitigate the perceived need for his continued segregation. While the acceptable length of administrative segregation is governed by the “rule of reason,” the Supreme Judicial Court said the outer limits of segregated confinement had never been articulated.

The Court left the defendants to promulgate regulations to balance the interests related to segregating prisoners, but held that “in no circumstances may an inmate be held in segregated confinement on awaiting action status for longer than ninety days without a hearing.” Because the Supreme Court announced for the first time this rule concerning time limits on the placement of prisoners in segregation absent a hearing, the defendants could not have reasonably known their conduct was unlawful at the time LaChance was confined in the SMU, entitling them to qualified immunity.

Therefore, the superior court’s order was affirmed in all respects except as to the qualified immunity issue, and the lower court was instructed to enter an order granting summary judgment to the defendants in their individual capacity. See: LaChance v. Commissioner of Correction, 463 Mass. 767, 978 N.E.2d 1199 (Mass. 2012).

The ACLU filed a friend of the court brief in this case and hailed the Supreme Court’s ruling. “This is an exciting decision for Massachusetts – and for the rest of the nation,” said Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “This decision sets a good example for courts to start reining in the excessive use of solitary confinement in prisons that has been allowed to fester without proper legal restraints.”

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