The state of New York has agreed to limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and the disabled, and will add durational limits and issue new guidelines to curtail the use of forced isolation. As we wrote in an earlier post, according to a recent court filing by the ACLU in Massachusetts:
decades of scientific research, have documented instances where isolated prisoners “become so desperate for relief that they . . . set their mattresses afire . . . burst out in a frenzied rage of aimless destruction, tearing their sinks and toilets from the walls, ripping their clothing and bedding, and destroying their few personal possessions in order to alleviate the numbing sense of deadness or non-being and to escape the torture of their own thoughts and despair.” A 2007 Massachusetts lawsuit documented numerous instances of suicide and self-mutilation among inmates held in segregated housing. The practice has been banned by most nations and is condemned by the United Nations Committee Against Torture. A spate of recent states have revised and significantly reduced its use and the Justice Department is currently reviewing its application in federal prisons.
As the result of the federal law suit in New York, a host of other reforms will also be instituted, including the appointment of an assistant commissioner and a research expert to monitor and oversee the implementation of disciplinary practices. New York is the largest prison system in the United States to take these steps towards progress.
Massachusetts would do well to follow suit, particularly in light of the overuse and abuse in imposing solitary confinement and its well documented link to increased prison violence. Prisoners in Massachusetts can be sentenced for up to ten years in solitary confinement as the result of a hearing process which is lacking of basic procedural safeguards. I personally worked with and got to know a Massachusetts prisoner who spent 8 years in solitary confinement on dubious evidence connecting him to prison violence. He was finally released after psychiatrists at the Bridgewater State Hospital concluded that his personality and psychological well being would be totally destroyed were he to complete his 10 year term.
Here in Massachusetts we ought to look at the reforms being instituted in places such as New York and in several traditionally conservative southern states and we should get in the lead instead of lagging behind when it comes to smart prison policy.