The Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary is holding a hearing about an omnibus criminal justice bill that, among other things, would vastly restrict the ability of corrections officials to put prisoners in solitary confinement or its functional equivalent.  

Scholars have studied the lingering reliance on solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons, despite the fact that (1) data collection is occasionally difficult and (2) corrections officials tend to use euphemisms (restricted housing, protective custody, administrative segregation and so on) that obscure the grim reality that inmates in our country are all too often placed in isolation for upwards of 23 hours a day.  Estimates about the number of prisoners who are confined in this fashion range from about 25,000 to 80,000.  In 2014, ten states either announced or implemented reforms to reduce the use of solitary confinement and the proposed legislation would allow Massachusetts to join this noble trend in recognizing the harmful consequences of prolonged isolation. 

I want to focus on one such scholarly effort – by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent, nonpartisan center for justice policy and practice with offices scattered across the nation.  Earlier this year, Vera published a major report that mentioned ten misconceptions about solitary confinement in the United States and then proceeded to debunk those myths.  Here are two of the most prominent misconceptions cited in that report: 

Misconception: Conditions in segregated housing are stark but not inhumane: Simply put, that’s wrong.  Nationwide, inmates placed in segregated housing are usually confined 22 to 24 hours per day in a cell six by eight feet wide, which is “smaller than a parking space.”  Reading materials and natural light are limited, if available at all; interactions with others are rare. The popular image of the ascetic inmate peacefully reading law books on a quest for self-improvement in isolation belies a far bleaker truth. 

Misconception: Segregated housing is reserved only for the most violent: Some inmates are placed in isolation because they have harmed others or are legitimate threats to do so.  But far too many prisoners in segregation have merely been identified as potentially dangerous, often based on gang affiliation.  Even worse, “[t]he most commonly understood justification for segregation is as punishment for a violation of a prison rule.”  This practice, disciplinary segregation, is frequently employed to punish people for disruptive behavior, not dangerous activity per se.  Behavior such as “talking back” or “being out of place” can land an inmate in isolation.  In Pennsylvania, the most common violation leading to a sentence in segregated housing was “failure to obey an order.” Massachusetts, for its part, permits segregated housing for “conduct that interferes with the orderly running of the institution.” 

As Massachusetts goes forward with these bills, it is crucial to consider the misconceptions outlined in the Vera Report as well as the nationwide data finding that segregated housing (1) is not just stark, but inhumane and (2) is not reserved only for the most violent.   

Professor of Law at Northeastern University, Daniel S. Medwed is a legal analyst for WGBH News.