Massachusetts has joined the growing national consensus that solitary confinement is over-used and under-scrutinized.
On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) can no longer use labels such as "administrative segregation" as an end-run around legal protections designed to prevent prisoners from being held in solitary confinement without end and without due process.
Corrections officials across the country should take note and move to ensure that their own segregation practices provide adequate due process protections.
The state's high court also found that placing a prisoner in solitary without due process for over 90 days is unlawful, and ordered the DOC to put into place regulations to prevent such confinements in the future.
The ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.
According to Amy Fettig of the ACLU National Prison Project, "This is an exciting decision for Massachusetts – and for the rest of the nation. This decision sets a good example for courts to start reigning in the excessive use of solitary confinement in prisons that has been allowed to fester without proper legal restraints."
In its decision in LaChance v. Commissioner of Correction, the Massachusetts court:
- Reaffirmed the principle that solitary confinement - no matter how you label it - is harsh and punishing and therefore requires firm legal protections; the importance here is that the DOC can no longer use labels as an end-run around legal protections to essentially subject prisoners to endless punishment/solitary confinement;
- Specifically found that placing a prisoner in solitary confinement conditions without due process protections for 10 months exceeds the "bounds of reason"; and
- Ruled that placing a prisoner in solitary confinement conditions without due process for over 90 days is unlawful and has ordered the DOC to promulgate regulations to prevent such actions.
A growing number of states have taken steps to reduce and regulate the use of solitary confinement. These steps have been taken for several reasons, including the human and fiscal costs of solitary confinement, concern for public safety, and the lack of empirical evidence to support the practice.