by Jayson Hawkins
The Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) surprised many critics with a June 2021 announcement of its intent to eliminate solitary confinement as it currently exists in the state prison system.
State Public Safety and Security Secretary Thomas Turco said in a statement that after a comprehensive review, including input from consultants, the public, and DOC administrators, the state was committed to putting state prisons “on a path to eliminating restrictive housing across the system.”
Falcon, a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in mental health treatment in prisons, produced a 41-page report that comprehensively examined the whole spectrum of solitary procedures in the DOC. The report recommended the outright elimination of the Department Disciplinary Unit (DDU), the most severe form of solitary in the state, along with other changes that could result in ending all forms of solitary.
The DOC uses several forms of solitary, or restrictive housing, for reasons ranging from mental health crises to discipline. Both administrators and prisoners found flaws in how most restrictive housing is managed in terms of programming and communication about procedures.
The DDU was the subject of most complaints. The report described it as a unit “whose aim was punitive long-term super-maximum confinement.” The report recommended all prisoners in the DDU be moved to units where out-of-cell time and programming was available.
The DOC has agreed to those recommendations, at least in principle. Critics are skeptical of the pronouncements. Elizabeth Matos of Prisoners’ Legal Services admitted to being “cautiously optimistic,” but said, “We don’t have enough details right now to know what this really means and what those things will be replaced by.”
State representatives Brandy Fluker Oakley and Liz Miranda said in a joint statement that the DOC should implement the changes immediately. “Even today,” they wrote, “the DOC has failed to commit to a clear timeline to implement the recommendations of the Falcon report of metrics to measure success, and we must demand better.”
DOC Commissioner Carol Mici responded to critics by saying her department “has worked hard to develop creative solutions to the challenge of restrictive housing,” and that changes will be implemented within three years. Given that solitary confinement is widely regarded as a form of torture, waiting three years to stop torturing people seems rather cavalier.
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