Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Rep. Elizabeth Malia have filed a bill in the Massachusetts Senate demanding a reduction in the length of solitary prison confinement time in line with the changes that have been brought about in other states. Their demands come in the wake of a series of similar bills that have been filed in other states like Florida and passed in Maine. Although the Massachusetts Senate has yet to approve the bill, support for the bill has already been heard from various quarters. So, it would not be irrelevant here to look into the issue of solitary prison confinement and the specific situation in Massachusetts.
The issue of how much civil liberty can be granted to prisoners has always been a much-debated and a sensitive one. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), criminal justice laws allow a particular state to deny prisoners the rights to liberty and property. But a state cannot deny prisoners access to their fundamental right to freedom and protection. These include the prisoner’s right to be protected from all forms of cruel punishment. Solitary prison confinement is an inhumane measure and the bill filed in the Massachusetts Senate is a protest against this practice and also an effort to have the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to reverse it.
The DOC in Massachusetts however, continues to defend its practices saying that solitary confinement, which they refer to as “administrative segregation,” is a necessary measure in their facilities that helps them manage the populations housed therein. According to the Department, they only keep those prisoners isolated whom they consider might hurt themselves or others. While it is true that in the past two decades or so, correctional facilities across the United States have increasingly used solitary confinement as a management tool, the ACLU has pointed out that this method of punishment and extreme isolation is detrimental to the mental health of the confined individual and also increases instances of recidivism. It is an inhumane method of punishment that goes against the grain of civil liberty.
A court case in Massachusetts in November 2012, LaChance v. Commissioner of Correction, brought to light the plight of the prisoners held in solitary confinement. At the two maximum security prisons in the state, the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center and the MCI-Cedar Junction SMU, prisoners were held in solitary confinement for 100 days on average. The pressure exerted by civil liberties groups after the release of these details have prompted authorities to promise to review their practices and declare that inmates who have been kept in solitary confinement for more than 90 days will be entitled to a hearing. Nothing concrete has been done in this regard.
Although the bill filed by Sen. Eldridge and Rep. Malia has yet to be passed by the Massachusetts Senate, it has shone the spotlight on long-term solitary confinement—the sheer inhumanity of the practice and its severe negative effects on the body and psyche of the inmates. Senator Eldridge is a leader on criminal and restorative justice issues and criminal sentencing reform.
The state Department of Corrections continues to defend its stance on the necessity of such a severe measure of punishment but it is undeniable that henceforth its actions will be under much scrutiny and questioned a lot by the public, the court, and various prisoner legal advocacy groups.
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