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DOC criticized for solitary confinement changes

Morgan C. Mullings
Staff reporter covering state and local politics. Report for America Corps Member. VIEW BIO
DOC criticized for solitary confinement changes
State Rep. Liz Miranda COURTESY PHOTO

When the Massachusetts Department of Correction announced in June that it would be dissolving its solitary confinement unit over the span of three years, state Rep. Liz Miranda was not satisfied.

The change, announced June 29, is a result of the Falcon report, an independent study into Mass DOC’s confinement practices. The researchers at Falcon Correctional and Community Services, based on months of studies and interviews with inmates, are calling on the DOC to dissolve the Department Disciplinary Unit, saying the unit is designed for punitive, long-term super-maximum confinement. Falcon recommends all restrictive housing be eliminated.

The conversation around incarceration reform in Massachusetts is in need of attention, Miranda told the Banner. During this term, she is prioritizing inmates’ needs in her legislation and watching which actions are taken because of the Falcon report.

“As I visited them, I started to realize that there were thousands of people, mostly of color, that are in the care and custody of the commonwealth, [but] people saw them as throwaway people,” she said.

Here’s what the report uncovered about incarcerated people who experienced solitary or restrictive housing in Massachusetts:

There are several types of restricted housing units, each with varying degrees of complaints from inmates based on why they were being kept there and the conditions of the living spaces.

In Restrictive Housing Units (RHU), many of the inmates are waiting to be assigned to DDU or are serving some temporary time for a number of reasons. “Those housed in RHUs commonly complained of procedural ambiguity around their reasons for remaining in RHU,” researchers wrote. Inmates expressed frustration with not knowing why they were there or how long they would be there.

The Secure Treatment Program (STP) is reserved for those dealing with severe mental illness at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster.

“Some conveyed that they were grateful to be in the STP rather than the DDU,” researchers wrote.

In the Secure Adjustment Units (SAU) at other facilities, they saw inmates in restrictive housing because they were afraid to return to their original facilities “due to conflicts with other inmates,” the report reads.

And in the DDU, which Falcon researchers say the DOC should terminate, they saw the most complaints.

“Inmates in the DDU were the most vocal about their conditions of confinement and perception that they were being warehoused and unfairly punished,” they wrote.

Miranda said of the report, “Punishing people with prolonged isolation is inhumane, period. No matter what we call it.”

The DOC, in its statement about the report, highlighted its apparent legacy of leadership in correctional policy rather than the experiences of the inmates.

“This comprehensive review process was guided by input from a wide range of stakeholders, and the recommendations have put the Massachusetts Department of Correction on a path to eliminating restrictive housing across the system,” said Public Safety and Security Secretary Thomas Turco in the DOC statement. “I commend Commissioner Mici and her team who have led the DOC with a deep sense of obligation and pride in carrying out its mission.”

To prison abolitionists and some members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, this issue is more about the individuals involved than about policy changes.

Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley is supporting legislation by Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Miranda that could fill a loophole in previous criminal justice reform legislation from 2019 and provide more protection for inmates with mental illnesses, and others who often end up in solitary confinement.

“The DOC should implement these changes in their entirety, effective immediately,” Fluker Oakley said in her joint statement with Miranda. “To address the atrocious findings in the Falcon Report, the department needs to both change their policies for the long-term and embrace reform through a culture shift and evidence-based best practices throughout the department.”

Abolitionists and legislators say that the DOC has a history of skirting the rules in order to maintain inhumane conditions.

After the department started to implement the 2019 reforms, they came under heavy scrutiny for attempting to meet technical compliance without actually making things better for solitary confinement inmates.

For instance, the law caps confinement at 22 hours, but the DOC’s new Secure Adjustment Unit allows 21 hours.

“We need to codify these things into law, because DOC is known to circumvent things,” Miranda said.

Mass DOC, Massachusetts Department of Correction, solitary confinement, state Rep. Liz Miranda