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Solitary Confinement Violations Lead to Lawsuit

BC Law clinic participates in class action case against state corrections department.


The Boston College Law School Civil Rights Clinic, Holland & Knight LLP, and Prisoners’ Legal Services filed a class action lawsuit July 3 on behalf of hundreds of incarcerated individuals in solitary confinement units within the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC). The lawsuit alleges the oppressive conditions in these units violate Massachusetts and federal law.

This lawsuit was filed after months of unsuccessful advocacy to DOC officials by incarcerated individuals following a hunger strike, along with efforts by civil rights organizations and lawmakers to compel the DOC to improve the conditions of confinement in these units and comply with the law. When individuals have spoken out and complained about unlawful treatment, the DOC has retaliated against them by imposing unlawful sanctions, transferring them to different facilities, and in some cases, brutalizing them.

Having made an unannounced visit to see some men in a solitary unit at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, MA, State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven said that “it is clear the conditions they are held in is unconscionable and running afoul to the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018. There is simply no place for solitary confinement in Massachusetts and we must end this cruel and unusual practice without delay.”

The Massachusetts legislature, with near unanimous support, passed the landmark Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA) in 2018. It was designed to restrict the DOC’s use of prolonged solitary confinement, also known as restrictive housing (RH), by requiring placement reviews at least every ninety days to determine if an individual could be released from RH.

The law also requires that those in RH have the same rights to visits, telephone calls, canteen access, and programming as those in the general population consistent with safety of the units to mitigate the known physical and mental harms of solitary confinement.

According to the class action lawsuit, the DOC has failed to comply with the law. In July 2022, incarcerated people in the then-Disciplinary Detention Unit (DDU) at MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole sued the DOC to assert their right to RH protections under the act. In June 2023, however, the DOC abruptly shut down the DDU, transferred most of the plaintiffs to equivalently restrictive units, and claimed that the Commonwealth no longer operated any RH units.

Rather than ending the use of RH as they had purported to do, the DOC merely rebranded the practice under new names: the Secure Adjustment Unit-IV (SAU-IV) and Behavioral Adjustment Units (BAUs), according to the newly filed claim. There are approximately forty individuals in the SAU-IV at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center and approximately 150 individuals in BAUs statewide in different DOC prisons. Prison officials refer to the SAU-IV as the new “DDU” and refer to BAUs as “the hole.”

“DOC is not above the law and this lawsuit is simply about getting DOC to comply with the CJRA once and for all,” said Sam Hodgkins-Sumner ’25, a student attorney with BC Law’s Civil Rights Clinic working under the supervision of clinic director Reena Parikh. “DOC cannot be permitted to continue their bait and switch operations by transferring incarcerated individuals from one facility to the next and slapping new names on units like the SAU-IV and BAUs, all while leaving most of the oppressive conditions of the DDU intact.”

The secure and behavioral adjustment units  are segregated housing units separate from the general population where the DOC confines individuals for many months or years at a time without any meaningful review process or opportunity to be released to general population. Plaintiffs Tykorie Evelyn and Jerome Meade have been in the secure adjustment units for fifteen and seventeen months, respectively, and have spent months at a time in different behavioral adjustment units. Plaintiff Emmitt Perry spent twelve months in the secure and many months in behavioral units at a time. Plaintiffs Peter Bousleiman and Charles Miles have spent four and six months in behavioral units, respectively, since they have been incarcerated. Plaintiff Emmanuel Biaggi struggles with mental illness, but was locked in the behavioral unit in early June instead of receiving mental health support.

Individuals…spend nearly twenty-four hours in some kind of cell or cage; they are given approximately ninety minutes of so-called “out-of-cell time” in a small outdoor cage alone, and approximately ninety minutes at an indoor table, sometimes alone, with both legs and one hand shackled to a table.

Individuals in the SAU IV and BAU spend nearly twenty-four hours in some kind of cell or cage; they are given approximately ninety minutes of so-called “out-of-cell time” in a small outdoor cage alone, and approximately ninety minutes at an indoor table, sometimes alone, with both legs and one hand shackled to a table. The DOC characterizes these three hours as “out-of-cell time,” thereby circumventing restrictive housing protections under the CJRA which applies to those in a cell for more than twenty-two hours per day. Plaintiffs have developed severe anxiety and discomfort around other people, have lost certain communication and social interaction skills, and suffer from panic attacks, strong feelings of depression, helplessness, and nightmares since being in solitary confinement, the lawsuit states.

“The enduring inhumanity of solitary confinement in Massachusetts prisons so many years after the Legislature passed the CJRA demonstrates that judicial intervention is now necessary,” explained Jim Pingeon, ligation director at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts. “DOC’s decision to try to end-run the CJRA by simply changing the name on the door of the solitary units is the latest in its long history of attempts to avoid compliance with the statutory and constitutional protections governing those in its custody. It is not only unconscionable and unsafe, but also illegal.”

The plaintiffs are not merely seeking legal remedies; their claim is also demanding a transformation in the way the DOC operates, aiming to dismantle the systemic issues that have led to egregious violations of human rights.

More from the Boston Globe

(The case caption and docket number are 2484CV01746 Evelyn, Tykorie et al vs. Jenkins, Shawn et al.)