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Symposium voices concern, highlights dangers of solitary confinement

Members of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts speak at a symposium on Thursday at the New England School of Law after the screening of the short film “Solitary Voices,” which raises awareness about issues surrounding solitary confinement. PHOTO BY BRIGID KING/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF
Members of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts speak at a symposium on Thursday at the New England School of Law after the screening of the short film “Solitary Voices,” which raises awareness about issues surrounding solitary confinement. PHOTO BY BRIGID KING/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

As part of a weeklong call to action on current solitary confinement laws in Massachusetts, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts hosted a symposium on solitary confinement Thursday afternoon at the New England School of Law. The symposium consisted of two panels as well as a viewing of the new short film “Solitary Voices” in front of approximately 65 people.

PLS staff attorney Elizabeth Matos began the symposium by reading statistics on solitary confinement in Massachusetts, which is one of three states that allow prisoners to be held in solitary confinement for up to 10 years. Solitary confinement is when an inmate is placed into a cell that is 6 feet by 10 feet for 22 to 23 hours per day and has no human interaction, Matos said.

“We organized this week of action on solitary … to give people a voice, get people up to speed on the issues [and] help them understand the issues,” said PLS staff attorney Bonnie Tenneriello. “[We] encourage them to reach out to their legislators and begin to have a voice on this horrible policy that’s been tolerated for way too long.”

In an effort to spread awareness about solitary confinement, the first panel focused on its issues and effects. Panelists included Matos, solitary confinement “survivor” Benito Vega, filmmaker Jason Pugatch, former Massachusetts Department of Correction clinician Kristen Dame and Black and Pink National Director Jason Lydon.

Pugatch’s “Solitary Voices” was played before the panel began. The film was created in partnership with PLS as an advocacy project and featured many interviews with people who had once been solitarily confined, including Vega.

“Documentary is all about making an emotional story connection to a world that you may be unfamiliar with,” Pugatch said. “If you can connect yourself and your story to someone living inside the walls of the documentary, then you can maybe start to open your eyes a little more to an issue and find the humanity within it.”

To add onto the recounted personal experiences, Dame discussed the health aspects in which “solitary confinement wreaks havoc on the sensory system.”

“We are changing people’s brains,” Dame said at the symposium. “[We are] creating symptoms of mental illnesses and releasing them back into the world.”

After the first panel concluded, the second panel shifted its focus toward solutions and actions to fix problems addressed during the first panel. Panelists included Tenneriello, Hampden County House of Correction officers Bill Champagne and Joaquin Suttles and Massachusetts State Rep. Liz Malia.

Tenneriello introduced the bill PLS created, which proposes protection for vulnerable populations, such as mentally ill inmates, pregnant women and disabled inmates, as well as limiting the overutilization of solitary confinement. The bill also proposes data collection on solitary confinement and general reform of how solitary confinement is administered.

“Nobody should be held in administrative segregation … unless there’s substantial evidence that they pose a … threat,” Tenneriello said. “[If] they are a supposed threat, they should be told how long they’re going to be there and … what they can do to earn their way out. They shouldn’t be held for more than 90 days without getting a new hearing to make sure they still need to be there.”

Champagne and Suttles discussed the measures Hampden County has taken to reform solitary confinement conditions, which include after-care release programs, MP3 players with educational programming and staff training regarding everyday interactions with inmates. However, many believe this type of approach is not reflected in most prisons.

“When we get creative with these various kinds of restrictive housing rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, I think we’re making it … easier on the staff to deal with these very challenging cases,” said Mary Ellen Mastrorilli, a professor in the Boston University Metropolitan College. “We’re also … able to address the individual needs of the offender.”

The symposium was meant to educate and encourage citizens to speak with their representatives on solitary confinement reform. At the end of the symposium, Matos listed actions that citizens can take, such as meeting with members of the Massachusetts legislature with a representative from PLS, if necessary.

Although many attendees were adults with criminal justice careers, many New England School of Law students enjoyed the symposium as well.

“I usually watch ‘Lockup,’ and you see these types of things in there, but listening to actual people who [have] been in prison and how it’s affected them just made me more aware of the situation,” said Johnnise Lopez, a second-year student at the New England School of Law. “I didn’t even know it costs more money to have someone in solitary confinement than in the general population, so that was very mind-boggling.”

One Comment

  1. Thank you so much for focusing attention on this issue and giving very vulnerable people a voice. I agree that when people can be creative and not use a “one-size-fits-all” approach, positive changes can happen and conditions can become more humane.

    It would be great to see institutions develop their own creative, flexible practices which reflect caring, good judgment, and an ability to evaluate each situation individually. I hope that correctional officers can operate in the most autonomous way possible within some broad standards of how practices should look in order to achieve the most humane conditions. This is likely to make everyone much happier in the long-term than having very strictly dictated step-by-step rules and guidelines.

    However, some basic minimum standards for protection from social isolation are necessary. We need to establish a basic level of care in prisons that is safe and does not inflict damaging harm to people living in prison.

    It is so nice to see so many people pouring time and passion into caring about some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. These kinds of efforts give me so much faith and hope for our country’s future. This passion and concern for the most vulnerable is what our country is really about at its best.