Hunger Strike in a Massachusetts Prison Targets Isolation and Abuse…and Other News on Solitary Confinement This Week

Seven Days in Solitary for the Week Ending 10/25/23

by | October 26, 2023

This week’s pick of news and commentary about solitary confinement:

In letters written to the Massachusetts Attorney General, a group of incarcerated men announced their hunger strike over conditions in the “Secure Adjustment Unit” at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts. The 19 men request an immediate investigation, stating that they suffer chronic abuse by prison staff and are being kept in conditions almost identical to solitary confinement. Many of the men protesting were transferred to Souza from a disciplinary unit at MCI-Cedar Junction after the facility closed in June following a lawsuit over the use of solitary confinement. WBUR | While the Secure Adjustment Unit was created “in an effort to end solitary confinement, [it] has mirrored the same conditions as previous restrictive housing units.” Boston College Law School Civil Rights Clinic director Reena Parikh says some people were pepper sprayed or given black eyes for asking to speak with a supervisor and “people are being told that you can be in this unit for 18 months to six years.” According to one letter, the men on the unit feel as if they are “out of options” for addressing the chronic abuse. Boston Globe

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Colorado is failing to fully implement a 2022 law that limits the use of solitary confinement on people with mental and physical health needs. More than half the people incarcerated at the Boulder County Jail have diagnosed mental health conditions. However, the facility continues to rely on solitary confinement to manage people going through mental health crises, due to a lack of infrastructure and staffing shortages. Vincent Atchity, a member of the Colorado Jail Standards Commission and president of Mental Health Colorado, argues that to prevent the use of solitary confinement on these vulnerable populations, state, local, and prison officials must find alternative ways of providing care to those in crisis. The Crime Report 

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According to its website, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation does not use solitary confinement or “restrictive housing”–but it fails to define either term. Rather, CDCR claims to use “a behavior-based housing model that focuses on providing the most programming opportunities for incarcerated people in the least restrictive setting.” Despite CDCR’s claims and new regulations, advocates say that incarcerated people are still being held in isolation for 21 or more hours per day. Hamid Yazdan Panah of Immigrant Defense Advocates stated: “I think (CDCR) would like to continue to essentially operate in a world where there is no clear definition of solitary confinement or pretend that it doesn’t exist.” The Sacramento Bee 

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Two men have died in two days at Maguire Correctional Facility in San Mateo, California. Both deaths occurred in the facility’s behavioral health unit where the men were being housed alone in their cells. According to the Sheriff’s department, preliminary investigation indicates the first man to have died of natural causes and the second man as a result of suicide. The Almanac | These deaths are representative of a larger series of abuses and dangerous conditions at the jail, including a documented history of isolation in the behavioral health unit exacerbating mental illness. Solitary Watch 

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The number of incarcerated people over age 55  rose by almost 400 percent between 1993 and 2013. Despite studies showing that participation in criminal behavior decreases with age, older incarcerated people are frequently denied release. Inside prison, elderly incarcerated people frequently face difficulties navigating facilities designed for younger people, accessing programming and health care in prison, and are often kept in solitary confinement “for their protection.” One 61 year old woman told reporters that she must stand on her desk in order to climb into her top bunk bed. Another older incarcerated man recounts how “back in the day, he was sometimes cuffed to a four-metal-post bed in a freezing-cold cell.” New York Times 

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Reading offers a lifeline to incarcerated people housed in solitary confinement, but getting caught sharing books can result in additional restrictions. This infraction, known as “Traffic and Trade,” can lead to loss of access to the one daily hour of out-of-cell time, loss of commissary and hygiene products, and removal of personal property like family photos. Despite all the risks, incarcerated writer Kwaneta Harris (also the recipient of a grant from our Ridgeway Reporting Project) remains determined to share liberatory knowledge with the other women in her unit in a Texas prison. The Emancipator | Fulfilling incarcerated people’s book requests is also becoming more difficult as facilities increase restrictions on mailing books. Many states have begun to require books be purchased from approved vendors, citing concerns over narcotics laced paper and packing materials. However, advocates argue these restrictions are more based on content than safety and amount to a de facto book ban. The Marshall Project | Inquest and PEN America have begun documenting the ongoing suppression of books in the prison system. Inquest 

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In a recent essay, Director of the U.S. Prisons Program for NRCAT Johnny Perez recounts his experience in solitary confinement and its lasting effects. Throughout the piece he describes the trauma resulting from the dehumanizing nature of solitary. He ends with a reminder for those incarcerated not to believe the narrative inside and a call to action for those on the outside. Porticus 

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