Reporter Chris Burrell, with our WGBH News partner the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, has been looking at solitary confinement in state prisons. Lizz Matos, executive director of the Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, discussed the issue further with WGBH All Things Considered host Barbara Howard. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Barbara Howard: What’s going on beyond what Chris reported?

Lizz Matos: There’s something called the Department Disciplinary Unit (DDU), and that is arguably one of most restrictive units in the country still. You can be sentenced for a disciplinary infraction for up to 10 years. Prior to the state’s criminal justice overhaul, you'd be sentenced for 10 years with literally no way out, nothing you could do. You could be a model prisoner for the next nine years and you would not get out.

Howard: Is it solitary confinement?

Matos: Yes, absolutely. It’s 23 to 24 hours a day. You get five hours of recreation a week.

Howard: Is that still being used?

Matos: Yes. But what they're supposed to do under the new law is after the first six months of that sentence, they're supposed to review the person who's in there and come up with a plan for them to work their way out, and then they're supposed to do 90 day reviews thereafter. One, it’s to really monitor if the person is kind of unraveling. But the other purpose is to see, 'OK, this person is being a model prisoner under very austere conditions. Let's give them a chance to get out.' So that it cuts into these very long sentences that we know to be very damaging on people.

Howard: How many people does this involve?

Matos: There are 124 beds. They’re not always full, but they have been full in the past. It's a fair number of people.

Howard: These are isolation cells with just one person in them.

Matos: They're just one person, they're not double bunked. We have a client who's done 20 years, because you can get consecutive sentences, and so he's spent 20 years under these conditions.

Read more: Jail Suicides Drop In Massachusetts After Years Of Increases

Howard: Have you ever met up with these clients?

Matos: Yes.

Howard: What is their condition, in your opinion?

Matos: We see a digression over time — inability to maintain eye contact, inability to complete sentences. They sort of get lost in the middle of their sentences. Just inability to focus, focus really becomes impacted. These are people who are spending 23 hours a day in their cell. Many of them talk about how they just recount the number of bricks in their cell, or they'll make friends with a bug in their cell or imagine the bug talking to them, hear voices. These are people who are spending a lot of time by themselves, and it has a very serious impact on the human spirit. We've had clinicians who have worked inside there tell us that the level of sensory deprivation that it causes actually sometimes makes them break a rule just so that they can get the “move team” — guards geared up with shields and things — to come in and physically rough them up and take them out of the cell, just so they can feel something.

Howard: A human interaction.

Matos: Just a human interaction, because that’s how much it gets to you.

Howard: How widely is that used? Is that used across the state of Massachusetts?

Matos: Just the Department of Correction. The Department Disciplinary Unit is what it's called, where you can be sentenced for up to 10 years.

Howard: The state prisons, not the county jails.

Matos: Yes. The county jails don't have that particular unit, or you can't be sentenced for up to that long in solitary confinement, no.

Howard: What kinds of infractions brought them to this point?

Matos: They're generally pretty serious. A fight where someone's gotten injured. The problem that we have with it, where we see the violation of the new law, is that they're supposed to be doing these in-person reviews where there gets to be a back and forth, where the person gets to say, 'Here's what's going on with me.' But what they're doing instead is just reviewing on paper. So there's really no opportunity, one-on-one, to really figure out what's going on with this person. And instead by having this paper review, you're just going to have a rubber stamp for 10 years, so the person will end up doing their full sentence.

Howard: That sounds draconian.

Matos: It's pretty draconian.

Howard: How can you come out of there not being mentally damaged?

Matos: You can't, really. You can't. You know, this practice of solitary confinement was abolished in the 1800s, because people at that time saw that it drove people mad. Not just here, but in other countries, as well. And it made a comeback when prisons became really overcrowded due to mass incarceration in the 70s and 80s. It started being used more as a management tool, and that's when you saw the comeback. And so should we abolish it? I mean, they did in the 1800s, and the reasons aren't any different today. It's still driving people mad.

Howard: That's Lizz Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, speaking with us about the issue of solitary confinement in state prisons. The state's Department of Correction provided us with a statement: “The DOC is committed to ensuring the safe confinement of inmates in our custody and has been working diligently to effectively implement the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018. The written comments submitted on the regulations are currently under review.” This is WGBH’s All Things Considered.