Boston College Law School’s Civil Rights Clinic and the law firm of Holland & Knight on July 22 jointly filed a class action suit against Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) officials on behalf of prisoners in solitary confinement for violating the Criminal Justice Reform Act and plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.
At the center of the dispute is the DOC’s Departmental Disciplinary Unit (DDU), a prolonged solitary confinement unit located at MCI-Cedar Junction state prison in South Walpole, MA. Prisoners are confined to parking space-sized cells 23 hours a day for five days per week, and 24 hours a day for two days per week. The lead plaintiffs, Emmitt Perry, Carlos Bastos, and Soksoursdey Roeung, have been sanctioned to a combined total of 23 years of solitary confinement in the DDU, according to the press release by the plaintiffs.
BC Law Civil Rights Clinic students developed the lawsuit from the ground up. After being referred the case from Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, and under the guidance of clinic director Reena Parikh, students Sarah Cortinez ’23, Kira Kaur ’23, and Erin McLaughlin ’22, along with co-counsel from Holland & Knight, last fall collectively interviewed approximately 20 prisoners in the DDU to gather facts and identify potential plaintiffs.
Last spring, students Dhairya Bhatia ’23, Steve Levy ’22, and Simone Washington ’23 conducted extensive legal research on potential claims and began drafting the complaint. Summer law student interns Clare Enright ’23, Alice Figlin ’24, and Shivani Patel ’24, met with named plaintiffs to finalize the complaint and filed it in Suffolk Superior Court with the assistance of Parikh and attorney Christine Sunnerberg from the law firm of Ramirez and Sunnerberg LLC, who has been co-supervising the interns this summer.
In addition to the BC Law clinic team, several alumni have offered support in the case. State Senator Jamie Eldridge ’00 (D-Acton), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, has called for systemic reform. James Pingeon ’83, the litigation director for Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, has been advocating for rehabilitative programming in lieu of punitive treatment.
The plaintiffs live in a never-ending state of trauma. Prolonged solitary confinement has weakened their social skills, rendering them nervous around others and less prepared for reentry into the community. DOC’s unlawful restrictions on visits and telephone calls have caused the loss of relationships with family and friends—a critical support system—exacerbating the plaintiffs’ depression. Further, inadequate nutrition and long-term physical restraint have made the plaintiffs physically weak. The plaintiffs hope this lawsuit will bring much-needed physical and mental relief to them and their fellow DDU prisoners.
“The inhumane design of the DOC’s Departmental Disciplinary Unit recklessly disregards a prisoner’s physical and mental health, as well as basic human needs,” Eldridge said, “and underscores why solitary confinement should be ended in Massachusetts prisons. Such prolonged confinement is a systematic failure that must be addressed by the DOC, and I hope the courts can provide some relief.”
The 2018, MA Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA), was designed to reduce the harms of solitary confinement, including limiting how long a prisoner can remain in DDU for disciplinary purposes. Under the CJRA, that time limit is six months; beyond that, a prisoner may be retained in DDU only if they pose an unacceptable risk to safety.
“Solitary confinement is already an unthinkable punishment, but to go further and deprive our siblings of access to basic human needs like food, hygiene, and outside contact, is nothing short of barbarism. This cruelty hits the most marginalized among us harshest, used overwhelmingly against those who are black and brown, LGBTQ+, or living with HIV,” remarked Erin McLaughlin, house coordinator for Black and Pink Massachusetts. “This litigation is thus vital in fighting the DOC’s institutional bigotry, and we call on the DOC to take the only humane course of action and abolish any form of solitary confinement altogether,” added McLaughlin.
The complaint alleges that DOC is violating the CJRA by keeping prisoners in DDU for up to 10 years for discipline, and by failing to provide a meaningful process to assess their actual safety risk after six months. The complaint further alleges that, among other violations of their statutory and constitutional rights, prisoners in DDU receive inadequate meals, and have unlawful restrictions imposed on their access to canteen, telephone calls and visits.
“The 2018 Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Act was passed with nearly unanimous support from lawmakers in the Commonwealth and yet, nearly four years after its passage, the Department of Correction fails to comply with the letter and spirit of the law.”BC Law Civil Rights Clinic Director Reena Parikh
“The CJRA was passed with nearly unanimous support from lawmakers in the Commonwealth and yet, nearly four years after its passage, the DOC fails to comply with the letter and spirit of the law,” said BC Law clinic’s Parikh, who, along with student attorneys in the clinic, also serves as counsel for the plaintiffs.
State Representative Liz Miranda added, “I filed H2504 An Act to provide criminal justice reform protections to all prisoners in segregated confinement because I witnessed first-hand that the individuals being placed in solitary were being put into inhumane conditions. No one deserves to be treated as disposable. We are dealing with case by case claims of abuse in solitary confinement and cannot afford to wait for the DOC to dissolve solitary and segregated housing over the course of 3 years when people are being abused and mishandled now. This class action is a necessary step towards bringing to light the injustices that are happening behind the wall.”
“The DDU is a dysfunctional failure that even the DOC acknowledges should be closed. This suit seeks to replace the counter-productive punitive culture of the DDU with rehabilitative programming and opportunities for constructive activities that will benefit both people incarcerated and the community as a whole,” Pingeon said.
As we seek to realize the promises of the CJRA,” Bhatia said, “we are deeply inspired by the plaintiffs’ continued fortitude in the face of DOC’s egregious human rights abuses.”
Parikh commends her students for their own inspired efforts. “I am so proud of the hard work and dedication these clinic students have shown to our clients and to the plight of prisoners in solitary confinement; we could not have developed this lawsuit without the students’ tireless efforts,” Parikh said.
“We hope that, as a result of this lawsuit, the CJRA will finally be carried out and enforced as the legislature intended,” added Courtney Batliner, partner with Holland & Knight and counsel for the plaintiffs.
The case caption and docket number are: Perry et al v. MA DOC et al., 2284CV01667, Suffolk Superior Court.