I first saw Davongie Stone last year through a small window in a very solid cell door. Representing Prisoners’ Legal Services, where I work as an attorney, I was touring a unit in Massachusetts’s maximum-security prison as a member of an oversight committee created by a 2018 criminal justice reform law. After years of grassroots pressure, the state legislature had passed measures intended to limit the use of solitary confinement, a practice that the United Nations Special Rapporteur has said can amount to torture.

Across the country, prisons have effectively skirted solitary reform by making only superficial changes.

We were there to observe the transformation of what had previously been called the Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU), one of the many euphemisms Massachusetts has employed for solitary confinement. The unit was now known as a Behavioral Assessment Unit (BAU), part of a revamp that officials like to say has ended solitary in the state’s prison system. An even older defunct name for solitary—Special Management Unit—was still stenciled on the doors.

Stone is a tall, young Black man with long dreadlocks and a serious demeanor. He recalls being sent to the unit because he had refused to live with a cellmate. Suffering from severe PTSD, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, he was overwhelmed by the idea of being locked in a cell with someone else nearly all day. He had come into the system six years before we met, at twenty years old, with all the things that funnel people into incarceration—childhood abuse, entry into foster care and then the juvenile justice system, and brown skin. When he was twelve, a psychological evaluator described him as “a young man who has experienced a debilitating degree of trauma and uncertainty in his environment” and noted among his strengths, “he is intelligent, is genuinely interested in others, and strives to remain hopeful about his future.” He landed in prison for a violent offense at twenty-one.

Stone has spent most of his prison time locked in a cell in various secure units, but the system has not spent time helping him. He has not gotten the help he seeks for managing his trauma and anger, nor has he had access to rehabilitative programs to prepare him for his chance at parole or his release at the end of his sentence in two years. When he presented video testimony to the state legislature earlier this year on a far more comprehensive reform bill, he said that the supermax prison “only breeds despair, anger, and hatred. It is not conducive to rehabilitation.”

Incarcerated people and their allies have struggled for many years against solitary confinement, the harms of which are now broadly acknowledged by medical and mental health experts and professional organizations. We have seen important victories in New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and Ohio, as well as in Massachusetts. All these states have ended or at least curtailed the worst abuses.

Yet correctional systems have an uncanny ability to neutralize reform. The standard definition of “solitary confinement” is being locked in a cell for twenty-two hours or more a day. Prisons have realized that by increasing time out of cell by just an hour a day, they can define solitary away—no matter if prisoners still have extremely restricted freedom of movement in that little bit of extra time. This is exactly what has happened in Massachusetts, and the state is not alone: an array of similar arrangements have cropped up following solitary reforms in other places, all relying on forms of containment that either resemble solitary or come very close. Prisons never seem to run out of people deemed too dangerous to leave their cells unless they are isolated or physically restrained.

What’s more, Massachusetts’s disproportionately Black and brown prison population still lives at the mercy of a largely white correctional staff, who are both afraid of those they oversee and able to exercise largely unchecked discretion over who gets punished and for what. The state incarcerates half the number of people it did ten years ago, but the budget of the Department of Corrections (DOC) is higher than it was then, even after adjusting for inflation—in part because the system employs an unusually high number of correctional officers. Can meaningful solitary reform be achieved in a system where surveillance and control are the lodestar and deprivation is pervasive?

For their part, DOC administrators express pride in the new system, and its architects—consultants with Falcon Correctional and Community Services—report receiving a flood of inquiries from other jurisdictions impressed by the Massachusetts changes. The model thus looks set to metastasize further still.

Incarcerated people and their advocates are desperately hoping for better. Among other things, the bill that Stone spoke on behalf of—still scheduled to be voted on in committee—calls for at least eight hours out of cell for all incarcerated people, community standards of medical, mental health, and substance abuse care, and universal access to rehabilitative programs and education throughout the prison system. Stone raised a key question in his testimony. “Why is it that DOC gets so much money but continues to take everything away from us?” he asked. “Where is this money going?”

The 2018 reform law, known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act, included provisions designed to limit the use of solitary confinement, which the law calls “restrictive housing.” In broad strokes, it states that people can only be held in such housing for two reasons: as a disciplinary sanction, or as a temporary measure while they are deemed to pose an “unacceptable risk” to prison safety. It specifies that everyone in the latter group must be given periodic reviews to determine whether they continue to pose such a risk; it mandates minimum conditions and privileges; and it bans the use of such housing for certain people, including those with serious mental illness and those held for their own protection—unless administrators certify that there is no other appropriate place for them and efforts are being made to find one.

The DOC complied with the law and looked further, hiring Falcon to do a system-wide assessment. A six-person team—including former heads of the Colorado and Connecticut prison systems and other leading correctional reformers—submitted a report in March 2021. Among other things, it recommended dissolving the state’s notorious Department Disciplinary Unit, where men had been held in solitary for up to ten years; considering the elimination of all restrictive housing as it was “currently defined”; and tailoring specialized units to an individual’s particular “criminogenic needs,” building upon a Secure Adjustment Unit that the DOC had opened to divert people excluded from restrictive housing by the 2018 law.

Though Massachusetts incarcerates half the number of people it did ten years ago, the DOC budget has only risen.

The DOC publicly embraced the report, promising to implement its recommendations and even end restrictive housing in all its forms. By 2023, the Department Disciplinary Unit was closed in a widely applauded and long overdue move, and RHUs had been rebranded as BAUs. According to the DOC’s description, people are assigned to these units if they are deemed to pose a safety risk. They are supposed to have their needs “expeditiously” assessed while in the unit, and the DOC says they are allowed at least three hours out of cell daily, as well as a weekly, one-hour group “wellness program.”

People held in BAUs see it differently. Those I have spoken with still call it “the hole” and say it doesn’t feel much different than before. Time “out of cell” is spent either in an outdoor cage like a dog run or indoors with one ankle and one arm shackled to a table or chair, which feels more restraining than a cell to many. Their commissary purchases are significantly restricted. They must eat meals alone in their cells, and their contact with the outside world is severely limited; while prisoners in the general population have unlimited access to calls and, even in maximum security, three visits a week, those in BAUs are allowed only four twenty-minute phone calls and at most two one-hour visits behind glass each week. And the DOC says that the extra hour out of cell means that these units technically no longer count as “restrictive housing,” so the protections of the 2018 reform law—including required reviews, minimum conditions, and the exclusion of vulnerable individuals—do not apply.

In response to concerns that my office and others have raised about these conditions, the DOC has stated that the stays are short-term. (In reality, according to legal filings from the DOC itself, people have been held in the unit for weeks or even many months.) Moreover, an administrator told me, offering full commissary purchases might lead people to resist being transferred out, since they would lose what they had purchased. (Why they couldn’t just keep what they purchased is unclear.) As for the limited out-of-cell time and the use of restraints, the DOC says that allowing people who might be enemies to mix unshackled in a BAU would be unsafe, and figuring out which individuals could mingle without restraints requires too much staff and space. (Yet some people held in BAUs are accused only of nonviolent offenses.)

After detention in a BAU, people are either sent back to regular housing units or classified to one of the new Secure Adjustment Units (SAUs), where they are supposed to receive programming according to their assessed needs. SAUs range from the punitive but less restrictive units in medium security to the most restrictive, known as SAU IV, located in the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.

SAU IV allows the same three hours daily of so-called recreation as the BAU, though conditions are slightly eased in the later stages of the SAU program. As in the BAU, isolation is compounded by limited visits, always behind glass, and scarce phone calls. Many commissary items are not available at all in SAUs, while other items are on an “incentive list,” meaning that they are allowed only for good behavior. Any of these meager allotments can be taken away for a disciplinary violation, leaving people locked in cells totally deprived of contact with loved ones outside.

The stakes are highest in SAU IV because it is a housing assignment, not a “temporary” placement like the BAUs. People can be held there for between eighteen months and six years at the discretion of correctional staff. Frustration over the extreme deprivations in the unit, along with a climate of violence and unaccountability, have led to turmoil and allegations of abuse. And as in BAUs, the DOC maintains that three hours a day outside the sleeping cell (even if in shackles and cages) exempts SAU IV from the 2018 protections. This leads to a bitter irony: SAU IV is in many ways more restrictive than the prison’s former RHUs. And this fact has only fueled anger and resistance, met in turn with violent retaliation from corrections officers.

Dominic Rezendes came to SAU IV in January 2020, straight from solitary in the DDU. Of Cape Verdean descent, with a mustache and beard, facial tattoos, and braided hair, the thirty-three year old has been in the DOC since twenty-two, after a childhood entangled with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. “My whole life has been institutions,” he told me earlier this year. “It was just easier to put me away.” He thinks he has been in isolation for about three-quarters of his eleven years in prison.

Rezendes was one of nineteen people in SAU IV who launched a hunger strike on October 6 last year to protest conditions in the unit. They reached out to the attorney general’s office to seek an investigation, noting in a statement that the unit “has mirrored the same conditions as those previous restrictive housing units.” In fact, protests had been going on for some time. In June, people held there filed grievances and demanded to speak with leadership. On June 14, after conflict over their TVs being taken away (a vital diversion in the unit), twenty-six people in the unit were reportedly violently attacked by corrections officers in the guise of “cell extractions.” (Also known as “forced moves,” these involve a team of officers in riot gear entering a prisoner’s cell; they are the most common form of guard assaults.) In late August, eleven more were reportedly assaulted in the guise of cell extractions.

“Why is it that DOC gets so much money but continues to take everything away from us?” Stone asked. “Where is this money going?”

In early January this year, a man in the unit started a fire in his cell in frustration over lack of medical attention to an injured hand. Allegations of abuse have continued to surface—people being locked in the outdoor cages for hours, medical neglect for a gastrointestinal disease that caused vomiting and diarrhea, and feces left in uncleaned cells. Reports of assaults continued into the new year, and some of the most vocal protesters were moved to more restrictive BAUs in other facilities.

Then, in early February, Rezendes also started a fire in his cell; he told me he did so after repeatedly telling guards he was having a mental health crisis but getting no response. A little over a week before, he had testified to the state legislature alongside Stone. With less than a year left before his release, he told lawmakers, he could not access any help with reentry. “There has been minimal opportunity for me to progress myself in any way, shape, or form,” he said. Having lost his mother, father, child, and brother, he noted he had “nobody to go back home to. . . . I have no trajectory, and there’s no one here to help me.” When I spoke with him the day after the fire, while he was under mental health observation, he told me he had wanted to die. “I have never done anything like that in my life. I was just hopeless. I thought if I create a big enough issue, maybe nobody else would have to feel the way I felt.”

People held in SAU IV are entitled to take a rehabilitative class, but many don’t participate. They must be shackled to do so, and unlike prisoners in general population, they do not get “good time”—sentence reduction credits—for their work. In principle, they can get good time for other programs, but such courses have long waiting lists, and even if they get in, they only have access to the ones that can be done alone in your cell. That rules most courses out. This is yet another way that the new unit is worse than old solitary. The 2018 reform law required that good time programs be offered in RHUs, but the DOC maintains this provision does not apply to BAUs and SAUs.

SAU IV’s deprivations and allegations of abuse are not exceptional in the maximum-security prison that houses it. Much of its general population of more than 900 people lives in conditions close to restrictive housing; more than half—those held in the “Northside” units—are allowed personal visits only through glass partitions. As one Northside resident told my office, “We get no sunlight, no yard, no gym, no school, no programs, and just no movement [outside of their units] at all. . . . I have PTSD that is getting worse and I’m developing schizophrenic symptoms from being over here.” In January 2020, following attacks on guards that took place in one unit, correction officers carried out a prison-wide rampage; more than 100 incarcerated people reported assaults.

The DOC’s reliance on harsh security measures in all these settings reflects the system’s overall priorities. On average, the DOC spent $138,500 per person in custody last year, much of it on security rather than prisoner welfare. The state now has one correctional officer for just over every two people in prison, and officers make up half the DOC labor force. As of 2019—the most recent year comparisons were available—Massachusetts had the fourth highest correctional officer-to-prisoner ratio of any state in the nation. And the state’s correctional officers raked in $45 million in overtime last year, with indications that substantial amounts were improperly approved and falsified.

With such high staffing, each incarcerated person lives under constant surveillance by correctional staff and constant threat of discipline if they break one of the myriad, arbitrarily enforced rules. Meanwhile, those looking for growth, education, or treatment go frustrated. In its report, Falcon stresses the importance of assessing criminogenic thought and behavior among prisoners who commit disciplinary violations, but meaningful change requires addressing the criminogenic nature of the prison system itself, which routinely deprives people in custody of minimally humane treatment and meaningful activity and leaves correctional staff largely unaccountable for abuses large and small.

Massachusetts has one of the highest correctional officer–to-prisoner ratios of any state in the nation.

The most recent available data shows that in December 2022, only one in five people in custody in Massachusetts were in any kind of rehabilitative, mental health, substance use, educational, or vocational program or on a work assignment. By the last available count, the DOC was spending only some 4 percent of its budget on programs. Data obtained by my office through a 2023 public record request shows that in six medium- and maximum-security DOC facilities alone, over 1,500 people were on a waiting list for the DOC’s substance use program. Another 107 people were waiting for the sex offender treatment program, 427 for the reentry readiness workshop, 533 for a course called “Criminal Thinking—Thinking for a Change,” and 507 for “Emotional Awareness.”

Medical and mental health care in Massachusetts prisons, as in nearly all others, is privatized and grossly inadequate. Across the country, an estimated 44 percent of people in jail and 37 percent in prison have a mental illness, in contrast to around 20 percent of the general population. Yet while psychiatric medications are commonly prescribed in the DOC, those in need of mental health counseling typically see a clinician just once a month.

The situation is similar when it comes to substance use disorders, though here the need is generally even higher. About 63 percent of people in jail and 58 percent in prison suffer from one, yet access to appropriate treatment remains scarce. Medication-assisted treatment has improved greatly in Massachusetts, thanks to legislative action, but in most cases those who were not prescribed a medication for opioid use disorder in the community struggle to access it in prisons and jails. In too many instances, even people who are prescribed treatments for opioid addiction before incarceration must taper off while in prison, only to resume before release. Those serving life sentences may never have access to medically assisted treatment. Meanwhile, rates of illegal drug use are high throughout the system.

Underinvestment in opportunities and treatment leaves control and punishment as the primary means of keeping order. People with histories of trauma and unmanaged mental health issues get into conflicts, and people without access to substance treatment have easy access to contraband drugs; in too many cases, the system puts such people in restrictive forms of confinement rather than offering necessary support.

These warped priorities also contribute to overincarceration. Lack of access to programs denies people “good time” and reduces their chances for parole; along with scarce treatment, it also leaves people unprepared to succeed on release. A recently released DOC study found that people who received substance abuse treatment or education while in prison had markedly lower recidivism rates after one year than a cohort whose needs were not met. The broad failure to meet these needs carries a human cost far greater than the average of $138,500 a year the state now spends on those it reincarcerates—and the costs are not borne equally.

There is no data on the racial composition of the SAUs and BAUs, but there are good reasons to believe that Black and Hispanic incarcerated people are punished disproportionately. A largely white correctional staff supervises a population where Black and brown people are extremely overrepresented due to inequity at every stage of the criminal legal system. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data, Black, non-Hispanic people make up 7 percent of the Massachusetts population but 29 percent of those in state prisons, while Hispanic people account for 12 percent of the population but 25 percent of state prisoners. These disparities have only grown as the Massachusetts prison and jail population has declined, since the white prison population has seen the highest rate of decrease.

At the same time, particularly in state prisons, the staff is drawn from largely white surrounding rural areas, attracted to well-paid prison jobs. Corrections officers write disciplinary reports at their own discretion, and guilt is generally adjudicated by a fellow correctional officer, leaving every person in custody fearful of incurring a grudge or even displeasure. Thus, punishment is racialized. And disciplinary convictions lead to punitive housing assignments, higher security classifications, diminished parole and earned good time opportunities, and therefore longer time in prison or jail and higher prison and jail populations. Earlier this year I asked a resident of SAU IV what the racial breakdown was; he estimated that of the twenty-six people held in the two phases of the program, perhaps two or three were not Black or brown.

A disproportionately Black and brown prison population still lives at the mercy of a largely white correctional staff.

Along with a racialized system of punishment comes racialized violence. Last year my organization received forty-two reports of assaults on thirty-two people held in SAU IV, some attacks on the same person; at least thirteen of those reportedly assaulted were Black, and all of those reporting multiple assaults were Black or Hispanic.

In addition to the comprehensive reform Stone and Rezendes spoke in support of earlier this year, the Massachusetts legislature is currently considering creating an office to “facilitate the recommendations of the Special Legislative Commission on Structural Racism in Correctional Facilities of the Commonwealth.” If passed, this first-of-its-kind legislation would establish an independent oversight body responsible for the investigation and elimination of structural and systemic racism in the state’s carceral system and data on racial disparities that is now lacking. But in a system that gives unfettered discretion to largely white staff and administrators overseeing a disproportionately Black and brown prison population, it is reasonable to expect disparities in all of these areas.

Massachusetts has closed three minimum- and medium-security prisons in recent years, significantly reducing overhead, and another large medium-security prison is slated to close. Meanwhile, the state’s plan to replace its deteriorating women’s prison with a newer, bigger one—despite the small, aging female population—has drawn fire. A moratorium on prison construction passed both chambers of the state legislature during the tenure of former governor Charlie Baker, who vetoed it, but if passed again, current governor Maura Healey might sign it.

Reducing the footprint of incarceration as populations dwindle clearly makes sense, but it is difficult to say whether this will be reflected in better conditions for those remaining in custody. Correctional budgets are opaque, and corrections departments maintain that population reduction doesn’t translate simply into savings, as facility maintenance and other fixed costs don’t drop proportionately and costs such as health care continue to grow. As MassINC notes in a recent report, it is hard to know how much the DOC is saving and how those savings are being used.

One hard-to-move factor is correctional staffing. Massachusetts’s extremely high ratio of guards to prisoners is unlikely to decline any time soon, not least since DOC corrections officers have a strong and powerful union. When prisons are closed, officers assigned there are being redeployed to other prisons rather than laid off. In turn, the strength of the union makes it harder to pass reform—whether because reallocating funds to rehabilitative programming and away from security might entail layoffs, or because correctional officers resist any perceived threat to their power and safety. The argument the union makes publicly is that reforms have bred violence; indeed, the union blamed the events of January 2020 on the 2018 reform law, even though no studies have shown that solitary confinement makes prisons safer.

The stress and danger of prison is real, of course, but there is no symmetry between the experience of corrections officers and the people they guard. Rezendes expresses both understanding of the pressure officers face and helplessness at being at their mercy. For the officers, he has told me, “this is not a job, it’s a culture. If they do what’s right, they get ostracized. They either quit or they do what [other corrections officers] want them to do. They go home, but for us we get [criminal] cases, we get beatings.”

The case for change inside prisons resonates with the broader shift away from incarceration.

Change will require acknowledging that prison violence, so often cited to justify draconian practices, is also a product of those practices. And it will require recognizing that even in lower-security settings, lives are being wasted and endangered by a system that funds control rather than human development.

In recent years, some states have taken important steps to reduce incarceration. In addition to solitary reform, Massachusetts’s 2018 reform law included a number of measures of this sort—from bail reform and new pathways for diversion to the elimination of some mandatory minimum sentences and certain court-imposed fees and fines that can land people back in prison for nonpayment. These measures may not be responsible for the entire drop in both incarceration and violent crime that the state has experienced since then, and they are far from sufficient, but they reflect growing awareness that incarceration can make communities less safe.

The case for change inside prisons resonates with this shift away from incarceration. Just as communities deprived of housing, decent jobs, and decent schools have been ravaged by mass incarceration, so are the incarcerated sons and daughters of those communities deprived of care, opportunity, and dignity in prison. And when we can’t control them, we cage them in a prison within a prison—call it what you will.

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