Why Solitary Confinement is Bad Policy for Prisoners

Massachusetts needs to step up and get in line with other states and limit the practice of isolating prisoners for 23 out of 24 hours a day.

Massachusetts is again No. 1 or No. 2, depending on your point of view. Massachusetts is one of only two states—the other is Arkansas—that allow state prisoners to live in solitary confinement for up to 10 years because of disciplinary infractions. Last week, legislators, legislative aides, experts, and advocates gathered for a briefing at the State House to examine the benefits of new legislation to restrict our use of solitary.

Sen. James Eldrige (Acton) and Rep. Elizabeth Malia (Jamaica Plain) have put forth a bill that would prohibit long-term solitary for disciplinary purposes. The gist of the bill is this: While prisons could still exercise administrative segregation for a prisoner who “poses a substantial threat to the safety of others” or might be at risk “to the operation of a state correctional facility,” they would be limited to use of disciplinary solitary to 15 days. If the prison felt continued solitary was necessary, the prisoner would get a hearing, specific ways to work toward release, and a conditional release date.

Right now, during disciplinary segregation, a prisoner can be locked in a cell for 23 out of 24 hours and there is no specified time given for his return to the main prison population. While these prisoners have food brought to them—and occasionally books and a paper and pen—they are void of human contact. At other state facilities in Massachusetts, prisoners can be locked for 19 out of 24 hours, which is barely an improvement: they fight for showers or rec time in the precious hours out of their cells. The American Psychological Association has pointed out that such punishment when those confined break the rules—steal a cellmate’s radio, get into a fight with an officer—can be at the prison’s whim.

At the briefing, Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist and noted researcher on confinement, pointed out that the pain people experience in solitary is greater than other kinds of pain in prison. Grassian evaluated men housed at Cedar Junction Prison (then called “Walpole”) in the infamous Departmental Disciplinary Unit (DDU). He found men “were ill in a different way.” Some men described hearing televisions talk to them, voices coming out of a radio, or feeling like they’re in a fog. Grassian called it “psychotic delirium,” and said solitary can cause psychiatric harm, even in prisoners with no prior history of mental illness.

So the bill would be an improvement in policy and conditions for prisoners, but it would also save Massachusetts some money. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimate that manning heavily-staffed segregation can cost at least twice as much as patrolling maximum security cells. Leslie Walker, Executive Director of Prisoner Legal Services, said currently, with 11,300 state prisoners, Massachusetts has 640 segregation beds, and they are often full. The price tag for state prisons in 2013 has been estimated at $45,500 per prisoner per year, said Walker.

Passing this bill won’t be easy—there’s a line of non-supporters that starts with Luis S. Spencer, the state commissioner of correction—but Massachusetts needs to be less myopic. The national trend is away from long-term use of solitary, according to policy organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Recently, Maine launched a campaign to reform solitary, and although it took seven years, they now have a 70 percent reduction in number of prisons sent to their segregation units, Zach Heiden, Legal Director of the Maine ACLU, said at the briefing. He also said that it took correction officials realizing that solitary was “bad management.” Instead, Maine has increased education and behavior modification techniques to improve prison conditions for guards and prisoners.

Passing this bill would get Massachusetts in step with other states. But we also need to put our attention on the prisoners who end up in solitary. At the briefing, perhaps Rep. Malia said it best: “We need to shift our focus to the underlying conditions of what might cause people to be violent, and go for treatment rather than for a punitive approach. We all know that doesn’t work.”