Reducing Solitary Confinement

One of the most difficult conversations we are having in the legislature these days is about how to reduce “solitary confinement” within our prisons.

The Baker administration’s dramatic improvement of conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital offers a hopeful precedent. The key idea there has been to de-escalate conflict, to calm patients down instead of restraining them when they get agitated.

The challenge is to bring the same fundamental idea into our prisons. Over half of the inmates in our state prison system are there for violent offenses. Some have gang affiliations. The potential for violence is ever present. Most of the violence is inmate-on-inmate.

If an inmate assaults another inmate – or a correctional officer – there has to be a punitive response, if for no other reason than to attenuate the likely cycle of revenge assaults. For men who are already serving time, some already serving life, the only available response is loss of privileges – confinement within a cell losing ability to socialize and participate in prison programming.

While we still have archaic statutes on the books authorizing “isolation” – one meal a day and minimal cell furnishing, other laws and regulations prohibit that kind of severe confinement. Under public health regulations, all prisoners are required to have at least five hours a week of outdoor recreation time. Department of Correction regulations provide that food in segregation should be equivalent to food in the general population.

The preferred term today, to distinguish current practices from older practices that were even less humane, is “restrictive housing“. Yet for some prisoners, especially those with pre-existing mental health conditions, just the cell confinement over 22 hours a day, the sensory deprivation, can be a torturous and destabilizing experience.

Over the past decade, the Department of Correction has made real progress in creating secure treatment units offering daily therapeutic interaction for agitated prisoners with severe mental illness. In 2012, the Disability Law Center reached an agreement to keep people with severe mental illness out of restrictive housing and get them into STUs or other treatment settings.  In 2014, the legislature solidified this agreement with statutory language.

But that still leaves a few hundred men confined in restrictive housing. Most of them are not severely mentally ill, but have committed disciplinary breaches. For inmates who have committed serious assaults, confinement can continue for years.

Inmates can spiral downwards in confinement, not necessarily losing their sanity, but coming to believe that they exist at war with the world, continually starting new fights that extend their confinement. If we can show them humane respect and a chance to earn their way out of confinement, some can follow a pathway towards more mature coping with others.

A few weeks ago, I traveled with a team to visit the Maine State Prison, a structure that replaced the infamous Shawshank prison about 15 years ago.

The new prison was built to house prisoners at multiple security levels, including “supermax”, and until quite recently, housed roughly 100 prisoners in restrictive housing.

Some very unhealthy behavior patterns had developed in those restrictive housing units. A Frontline documentary filmed in the units featured a lot of blood from inmates cutting themselves.

The leadership of the Maine State Prison undertook to change those patterns and, in fact, has dramatically reduced the number of men in long-term restrictive housing. Those improvements – like the improvements at Bridgewater State Hospital — have been achieved only through daily management focus on de-escalating conflict.

Ultimately, only the leadership of our prison system can make the necessary changes, but we are working hard to frame legislative measures that will support and encourage those changes.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

29 replies on “Reducing Solitary Confinement”

  1. Solitary confinement in isolation should be illegal period. Probably is under international law already. Sort of the cool thing about law, you establish a just law and that becomes policy eventually because it has to.

    1. Peter, if you were a witness in a case that put the person in prison, and he was threatening you and your family from inside prison, what kind of extra punishment would you subject him to?

      No more eggs for breakfast – just pancakes?

  2. Solitary confinement, if it must exist, needs to be humane – not totally solitary. Meals, outside time should provide SOME interactions. Opportunities for all prisoners should include more rehabilitative than restrictive resources.

  3. IIRC, there are increasing numbers of women in prison. Do the same restrictions apply to them and, if so, is the legislature working on that also?

  4. As always, you confront us with hard choices. Viewed from a biological perspective of the human animal, how would you and I feel confined and isolated as punishment. But if we continue to behave anti-socially (no matter our social context), should we not consider treating the rabid fellow human in the same manner as we would treat threat of a rabid dog or squirrel or bat or cat?
    Since euthanasia is so abhorrent to any sensitive person, must injections of some form of tranquilizers (not just short- but long-term) be considered unthinkable?

  5. Definitely think it is PAST time to make these changes. Unfortunately most of these changes will probably have to come from outside the prison system. Super-abusive systems and personnel must be dealt with by eliminating them from the systems

  6. It seems there is an inherent philosophical question re discipline and/or punish: Is “evil” learned or inherent? It is probably out of one’s answer to this question that solutions regarding the de-escalation of conflict grow. Since I can’t pretend to know the answer to this question, I’d rather “err” on the “learned behavior” side and offer to all prisoners the opportunity for education, hope, etc. Punishment seems only to exacerbate bad behavior.

    (Sometimes it seems the “real” criminals never get to prison at all since they can afford to “buy” the defense they require.)

  7. My friend, an elderly woman at MCI Framingham, has been put in solitary confinement NOT for violent behavior, but because 1. there was no other accessible cell- and she was kept there several days– and 2. because the officer on staff did not like her advocacy for “reasonable accommodation” for the disabled. In my opinion, the legislature should set clear standards for when solitary confinement is inappropriate. Thanks for letting me comment.

  8. How many people in these prisons are illegal aliens?

    And what kind of offenses put these people into solitary confinement? Threatening lawyers, judges, and witnesses outside prison?

  9. Off topic, but I just discussed with the police how to manage criminal behavior that comes with opioid abuse, perhaps before prison gets involved. In-house restraining orders, I don’t know how much discretion judges have but with a judge and social worker and an in house restraining order you may be able to manage things and perhaps begin to impose some expectation of responsible behavior. Clinic only go so far, and it really isn’t far enough.

  10. When you eliminate or decrease the punishment, you also eliminate or decrease the deterrent factor to commit crimes. Some people make moral decisions not to commit crimes. Others don’t commit crimes for fear of the punishment. Let the judges and professionals decide on a case by case basis, based upon the crime and criminals history, what punishment or rehab is needed. No one case or person is the same.

    1. What “professionals” do you have in mind? How well do you think the average warden even understands that part of their responsibility is making sure inmates are less broken when their sentences are over, let alone know what is most effective in reaching that goal?

      The idea that potential criminals make rational decisions based on punishment has AFAICT largely been debunked — at least, there’s little indication it was a consideration for those who got caught. What would work? I don’t know — I’m a software engineer, not a psychologist — but what we’re doing now does not match our professed ideals.

  11. I totally commend your efforts
    It is within our power to stop cycles that are inhumane and perpetuate bad behaviors

  12. Good luck in your efforts. Solitary confinement does not ameliorate violence and disruptive behavior; it has been shown to create them. And those inmates will someday be back in our community. How does it serve us to have ensured they will emerge from prison back to our communities as mentally and behaviorally disturbed as we could have made them.

  13. Plain and simple. Solitary confinement is inhumane. When someone commits a crime and is sentenced to prison that is pain and Punishment enough. But to force people to be double salt or put in solitary confinement with no human contact is inhumane. People need to be around other people for mental stimulation. But they don’t need to be in an 8 by 10 cell with another human being. That too is inhumane. If we want to rehabilitate incarcerated individuals we need to treat them like human beings. Put yourself in that situation and ask yourself if you could survive that kind of living. There is not a perfect person in this world. We are all sinners and we all make mistakes. Be supportive to those we do not know . Not vengeful.

  14. CBSNews did a profile of the Sheriff of Cook County jail who has instituted classes etc. for prisoners; many of whom are mentally ill.
    His objective is to humanize their experience in jail and to help those getting out become ready for reintegration.
    It”s worth a look at the video….”we have to think differently” he says.

  15. Resolve to Stop the Voilence Project (RSVP) has been proven to reduce in house violence. 28 incidents to the level of a felony in the control group 0 in the RSVP pod during a 12 month period.

  16. I’m really glad you’re devoting time and energy to this issue. I don’t know what’s best, and I don’t have an opinion to offer. I just know that treating prisoners humanely is a important human rights issue. I’m glad you’re on it.

  17. Interesting that we have the Maine State Prison as a model to improve our prison system. It’s also enlightening to learn about the Illinois Cook County prison system reforms and the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP).

    We all agree that a punishment that doesn’t prevent future problems is ineffective. A punishment that causes deep resentments is ineffective. Lengthy solitary confinement that seriously unhinges a person is ineffective. A culture of violence that requires punishment in order to prevent revenge violence is frustrating. I would think others in Maine, Illinois, and in the RSVP programs have looked at these issues.

    Prison guards do have a very stressful job. The current prison environment is challenging to even the most seasoned well-intentioned workers. However, we have a chance to find and implement a better way with what we learn from Maine State Prison and others. I like the conclusion of an RSVP study (( that states we need: “Multilevel, comprehensive prevention approaches that: emphasize making available to violent individuals the kinds of tools they need in order to develop non-violent skills and reality-based sources of self-esteem; increase their capacity to experience feelings of empathy and remorse; and provide opportunities to take responsibility and amend the injuries they have inflicted on others and on the whole community, may play an important role in reducing the cycle of violent crime. “

  18. The play that I saw at the State House was the crowning touch. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment — psychological torture.
    We could have four or more adjacent small single cells with daylight and access to see and talk to this other such prisoners. Those prisoners could have in cell meals and yard time separate from the general population.
    Also, reasons for such punishment must be clearly specified and each case must be appointed a public defender.

  19. I for one wouldn’t have to survive those conditions as I don’t commit crimes.
    Where is the help for the victims of these criminals. restitution, consoling ,
    Prison is not supposed to be a country club that criminals don’t mind going back to

    1. I’m with you, David. Criminals who treat peace-loving people INHUMANELY do not deserve to be treated humanely. Prisons are not supposed to be hotels.

  20. Being induced to stop one’s violent behavior hardly seems like “country club” or “hotel” living.

  21. Will,

    What constitutes a “serious assault” exactly? What would that mean if it happened out in public?

    I don’t doubt that we have a problem in this country with sending too many people to jail/prison for non-violent, malum prohibitum offenses. I know we levy fees on people for ridiculous things, those escalate and lead to more serious charges and punishments where they really shouldn’t. Frankly, this seems like a much broader problem than people committing “serious assault” while already in prison and being subject to solitary confinement. I have to wonder why this is a legislative priority over other issues.

    At the same time, I really hope we’re not drifting back to the absurdly lax sentences we had in the 70s. Yes, Willie Horton is an example here and I hope people actually look into exactly what happened there before they scoff about the subsequent political fallout.

    1. I am currently visiting an inmate who is in solitary confinement. His assault (which I have confirmed through several sources – including a printout from the DDU itself) was that he grabbed a guard from behind and covered the guard’s mouth with his hand. No injuries were sustained by either party. This was his first and only offense in the seven years he has been in prison. He was recently sentenced in criminal court for the assault and received six months to be served concurrently with his sentence. His sentence to solitary confinement – four years in solitary.

    2. It’s one of many issues addressed in our broad criminal justice reform bill. We don’t want to make criminals worse in prison if we can avoid it. Humanitarian concerns aside, it makes sense to reduce solitary if we can.

  22. Schools faced a similar problem with kids sent to the principal, and down into the pipeline-to-prison route – instead, the school taught the kids how to meditate, with wonderful results.

  23. Let’s be clear about the facts — Massachusetts DOC will put people in solitary confinement for 10 years for “crimes they commit in prison.” This is inhumane and not best practice. This does not lead to rehabilitation or prepare those being released for success in society. Massachusetts’s DDU is a well-kept secret — not understood or visible to most tax payers.

  24. Why not limit solitary to ONLY violent offenses? That would reduce the numbers at each prison. Then the violent who go to the DDU could have more intense treatment.Those in the DDU for inmate on inmate violence accounts for 70 of the 114 in the DDU as of a report recently.Of the 70 assaults, 52 occurred at Souza Prison. Perhaps a different approach to conflict resolution and behavior need to be instituted at Souza. That is where most of the problems with violence occur.The other prisons should not have people in solitary for non-violent offenses. That would be a simple place to start.

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