by Lonnie Burton
A “white paper” published in November 2016 by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLSM) found that while the use of solitary confinement in the state was widespread, it did not produce provable cost-effectiveness or reduce prison violence – and that solitary may actually be bad for public safety.
In June 2017, members of the state legislature’s Judiciary Committee heard the first proposal for reform to follow the PLSM study – a bill that would limit solitary confinement to cases where a prisoner poses a clear threat to the safety of the facility.
“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 PLSM attorney Bonita Tenneriello, who added that prisoners in solitary need “some kind of programming to address their behavioral problems.”
The Massachusetts Department of Correction (MDOC) already requires a hearing within 30 days when prisoners are placed in segregation. Further, MDOC policies state that prisoners must pose a “substantial threat” either to others or to the prison’s safe operation. Solitary is also supposed to be limited to “administrative” as opposed to punitive purposes.
But Tenneriello said the MDOC had failed to follow those regulations.
The Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association (MSA) said it was already revising its policies in order to restrict the use of solitary confinement at county jails. The sheriffs “agree with the proponents of these bills that use of isolation needs to occur in as humane a manner as possible and must be limited to those instances where it protects the safety of inmates and staff,” said MSA executive director James Walsh.
PLSM published its white paper shortly after the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reformed segregation practices in the federal Bureau of Prisons. That move came as a number of state and local corrections agencies across the U.S. began to scale back what PLSM called an over-reliance on solitary confinement.
In addition to limiting the use of solitary, other bills pending before the Massachusetts legislature would improve conditions in segregation units and require jails to disclose more information about their solitary confinement practices.
The white paper presented data from several states where reducing the use of segregation did not result in increased prison violence. In fact, some states reported that curtailing the use of solitary had coincided with fewer violent incidents.
After Mississippi cut the number of prisoners in “supermax” segregation units by 85 percent, for example, there was a 70 percent reduction in violence. Maine halved the number of prisoners in its solitary population and also saw no increase in overall violence, with some units even showing a decline. And after Colorado closed a 316-bed segregation unit, reducing its solitary population by one-third, the state saved $18 million over a four-year period during which prisoner-on-staff violence fell to its lowest level since 2006. [See, e.g.: PLN, Sept. 2017, p.1].
Redirecting funds from segregation units to other programs – such as drug treatment, education and employment training – would reap Massachusetts much greater benefits, the PLSM study argued. It costs the state $100,000 to $170,000 a year to hold a prisoner in segregated housing, compared to about $50,000 per general population prisoner. The study suggested investing the savings from reduced use of solitary into “programs that will help prisoners avoid segregation in prison and succeed on release, creating a virtuous circle of reduced prison violence, reduced recidivism, and further savings.”
To the extent that other types of programming help prisoners avoid recidivism, the use of solitary confinement may actually endanger public safety, the report concluded. In addition to missing out on rehabilitative programs, the denial of family visitation – which is common for most segregated prisoners – was also shown to decrease the chance of success once a prisoner is released and returns to the community.
“Prisoners held in segregation for an extended period of time and certainly those released directly from segregation to the street are at a high risk for failure, which is undeniably bad for public safety,” the study stated.
Jill Laganas testified at a state Judiciary Committee hearing that her son’s confinement in solitary had contributed to his death.
Billy Laganas, 37, died less than three months after he was released from prison in 2016. He had spent almost a year in solitary, losing 25 pounds and cutting himself to receive medical attention as a way of escaping the isolation, Laganas said. She added that he 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,” Laganas stated. “His anxiety attacks became an everyday occurrence.”
Governor Charlie Baker said he would review the legislation to reform the use of solitary confinement.
“I can tell you [the use of solitary has] 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,” the governor declared.
However, the PLSM study noted that the MDOC imposed segregation terms as long as ten years, and recommended that the state follow the DOJ’s example – limiting solitary to 60 days for a serious offense or up to 90 days for a repeat offense.
In addition, the study recommended that prisoners who continue to pose a threat after serving disciplinary sanctions should be placed in “administrative segregation” – during which they are still allowed to receive rehabilitative services and can earn release from segregation through good behavior.
Finally, the PLSM made several other recommendations, including prohibiting the use of segregation for mentally ill prisoners altogether, limiting the use of solitary confinement to prisoners who pose a substantial threat, providing programming to all prisoners in solitary and eliminating the release of prisoners directly from segregation to the community.
“Massachusetts can and should join a historic movement away from a practice that history will regard as barbaric,” the study concluded. “Solitary confinement does not serve prison or public safety, and it wastes taxpayer funds as it destroys lives.”
On October 27, 2017, the state Senate approved criminal justice reform legislation that included provisions related to how solitary confinement is used in the prison system; the bill, in amended form, passed in the House on November 14.
According to Masslive.com, the legislation would require “that prisoners in solitary confinement be provided with certain amenities, such as three showers a week, access to reading and writing materials, access to canteen purchases, and periodic mental health evaluations. The bill requires that anyone with a mental health condition be sent to a secure treatment facility rather than solitary confinement. It also requires regular evaluations to determine if a prisoner is able to rejoin the general population.”
Sources: “Solitary Confinement: The Case for Change in Massachusetts,” by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts (Nov. 2016); U.S. News & World Report; www.boston.com; www.masslive.com
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