Massachusetts high court rules against prolonged solitary confinement without due process
Supreme Judicial Court reaffirms principle that use of solitary must be balanced with firm legal protections, including a 90-day limit without due process.
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BOSTON — Ruling today in LaChance v. Commissioner of Correction–a case involving an inmate held in solitary confinement for 10 months at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Mass., following an original incident in which Mr. LaChance threw pudding at another inmate–the Massachusetts Supreme Court reaffirmed the principle that use of solitary confinement is a harsh punishment that must be balanced with firm legal protections. The American Civil Liberties Union, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, hailed the ruling for its significance both in Massachusetts and across the country.
Specifically, the 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. The 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.
“This is an exciting decision for Massachusetts–and for the rest of the nation,” said Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “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.”
“We are grateful to see the Court’s conclusion that isolating people from other human beings, rather than the label that prison officials attach to that isolation, is what matters under the law,” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Mr. LaChance–who was limited to two “non-contact” visits under an hour per week, with restricted access to books, the prison canteen, and educational, religious and other programming–brought suit alleging violations of his constitutional due process rights and of state statutes and regulations. Mr. LaChance sought declaratory and injunctive relief as well as monetary damages.
A Superior Court judge granted LaChance’s partial motion, ruling that the defendants had violated his right to due process under the state and federal constitutions. The judge denied the defendants’ cross motion, which sought to dismiss LaChance’s claims as barred under the doctrine of qualified immunity for public officials, and their motion for reconsideration. When the defendants appealed, Justices moved to transfer the case from the Appeals Court to the Supreme Judicial Court.
National ACLU senior staff counsel Amy Fettig, with ACLU of Massachusetts legal director Matthew Segal and senior legal counsel John Reinstein, submitted the ACLU’s amicus brief in the case.
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