Expanding Unfair Punishment

While Harvard students settle into their Spring term classes, the Massachusetts state legislature will debate a bill that seeks to eliminate regulations regarding the “admission, placement or retention of prisoners” in the solitary confinement cells of Massachusetts prisons. The proposed law, Senate Bill 1311, grants prison authorities an almost unrestricted license to place prisoners in six foot by eight foot “control” or “segregation” units for up to 23 hours a day over periods of months or even years. The United Nations has stated that these conditions constitute a form of torture.

The psychological effects of solitary confinement are profound. Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian has noted that “solitary confinement itself can cause a very specific kind of psychiatric syndrome, which in its worst stages can lead to an agitated, hallucinatory, confusional psychotic state often involving random violence and self-mutilation.” The extreme sensory and intellectual deprivation that prisoners experience locked up these cells frequently leads to suicide attempts. In addition to the severity of the punishment, prisoners in such conditions are also denied rehabilitative opportunities such as education and drug treatment programs, reducing the likelihood that they will be successfully reintegrated into society when ultimately released.

At present, some regulations do exist to ensure that prisoners are not arbitrarily subjected to the psychologically threatening conditions of solitary confinement. The courts have twice mandated, first in Hoffer v. Fair in 1988 and again in Haverty v. Commissioner of Corrections this past October, that every prisoner must receive an accurate and fair hearing before being placed in solitary confinement. The hearings help determine whether a prisoner’s behavior is really dangerous enough to warrant the severity of the control units. They also check against the arbitrary classification of prisoners on the subjective basis of “reputation,” which is all too often linked to distorted, discriminatory attitudes towards the ethnicity of certain inmates. Even with the current hearings system, there is concern about the potentially racist application of solitary confinement. In the late 1990s, for instance, African-Americans accounted for 30 percent of the Massachusetts prison population but constituted an astounding 50 percent of the solitary inmates held in departmental disciplinary units. Without hearings, the classification of inmates would be more subjective and racially motivated. Though they constitute only 20 percent of the Massachusetts prison population, Latino inmates already make up 90 percent of so-called “gang members,” a label loosely applied by prison guards to categorize supposedly high-threat inmates. By eliminating hearings, Senate Bill 1311 only increases the likelihood that discriminatory and unfair classifications in prisoner punishment will continue.

The existing Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court regulations are a deliberate response to the Department of Corrections’ past inability to preserve prisoners’ due process protections. The violation of these constitutional protections can and will have dramatic affects on a large number of inmates. Consider this: according to the 1998 court testimony of one maximum-security prison warden, approximately 85 percent of Massachusetts prisoners then in solitary confinement units had simply been overclassified. They didn’t belong in solitary confinement and could have remained in standard or even minimal security conditions without any additional threat. A majority of those prisoners to this day still suffer in inhumane conditions that they were never reasonably shown to, and most likely do not, deserve.

Not surprisingly, economic motives lurk at least in part behind this bill. One of the bill’s main sources of support is the Massachusetts prison guard lobby. Increasing the number of criminals in solitary confinement is a boon to the prison guard workforce, since it increases the demand for their services, as procedures dictate that several guards must be present during the movement of high security prisoners into and out of their cells.


But the drive to overclassify inmates is also an economic burden on the entire Massachusetts population. Placing a prisoner in a cell block just one security level higher than he deserves costs the state an additional $15,000 annually. According to the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, who obtained their raw data from a report commissioned by the Department of Corrections itself, approximately 5,000 inmates are currently being overclassified by at least one level. By this estimate, which is a conservative one, the state wastes $75 million every year on this problem. Senate Bill 1311, by making it easier to overclassify inmates, would perpetuate and potentially aggravate these financial losses.

While some people support solitary confinement as a last-measure punishment, even they cannot endorse a bill that endorses its frivolous and unregulated application, implicitly bypasses a twice-upheld decision by the state courts, undermines basic constitutional rights and results in an inordinate waste of state taxpayer dollars. The legislature must open its eyes to the tremendous negligence, unfairness and waste implicit in Senate Bill 1311.

Previn Warren ’04 is president of the Harvard Progressive Advocacy Group. Richard M. Re ’04 is also a member.


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