The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ordered safeguards against long-term solitary confinement of inmates placed in segregation.

Rights’ advocates such as Leslie Walker, Executive Director of Prisoner’s Legal Services of Massachusetts, is hoping the ruling will reduce unnecessary isolation of prisoners.

Walker says the SJC ruling directs the Massachusetts Department of Corrections to utilize regulations that are on the books, but that the department hasn’t strictly enforced. She says the SJC order affords inmates due process.

Back on October 21, the SJC issued a ruling that involves administrative solitary confinement, which generally is defined whereas an inmate is held in a cell for 23 hours, five days a week, with no contact with outsiders, even if the segregation is considered short-term. 

According to Walker, there are two different types of solitary confinement: administrative and disciplinary.

Disciplinary solitary confinement requires an inmate to be placed in solitary for an alleged or disciplinary infraction. 

Administrative solitary confinement could include segregating an inmate for reasons such as protecting a prisoner who may be at risk of gang retaliation, or being a potential target because of crimes committed.

The court found that prisoners held in administrative segregation are entitled to a hearing to petition for their release from segregation. They must be told what steps will occur to expedite their return to the general population, and they should expect an approximate release date from administrative segregation – meaning they cannot be held indefinitely.

Walker says Massachusetts is one of a handful of states that will use solitary confinement – or disciplinary segregation – for one infraction, and segregate an inmate for up to ten years in solitary confinement. Walker says research shows there are severe deleterious effects of solitary confinement on inmates.

Walker says the Department of Corrections has some very good internal program units for inmates such as residential treatment units for people with mental illness or who are developmentally delayed. She says there are also secure treatment units for some prisoners that have gotten into trouble but are not put into solitary, but she says the state needs more of these units.

The Department of Corrections is reviewing the SJC’s decision.

To Listen to the entire interview with Leslie Walker and WGBH's Bob Seay click on the audio file above.