Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Limits Solitary Confinement

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ruled that holding an inmate for 10 months in solitary confinement with only periodic informal review of his custody was unlawful. The inmate, Edmund LaChance, was originally placed in solitary confinement after throwing a cup of pudding on another inmate. Though initially sentenced to only seven days in solitary, LaChance remained there for the next 10 months.

The court said that while LaChance was in solitary, he was allowed to exercise in an outdoor cage one hour a day, five days a week; given two non-contact visits a week; permitted two books a week; and denied the opportunity to participate in educational, religious, vocational, or rehabilitative programming. His wrists and ankles were shackled at all times when he was outside his cell.

In concluding that this 10-month term in solitary was unreasonable, the court noted that, in addition to restrictions on his recreation and access to visitation and programming, LaChance did not have an effective mechanism for contesting his placement in solitary. Though his custody was reviewed periodically, the court wrote, “None of these reviews entailed giving LaChance notice of the proceedings, much less an opportunity to speak on his own behalf or to test the purported basis for his continued confinement.”

While stopping short of prohibiting the use of solitary confinement, the court’s ruling firmly establishes that inmates are entitled to a mechanism for challenging their placement in solitary. The court also noted that prison officials often skirt regulations limiting the time inmates can spend in solitary confinement by giving them a classification that allows unlimited consecutive sentences in solitary — in effect, confining them in solitary indefinitely.

Though this ruling directly affects criminal inmates only in Massachusetts, the court’s reasoning applies equally to the tens of thousands of inmates across the country, as well as to immigration detainees and others who are kept in solitary, often despite never having been convicted of a crime. As opposition to the use and abuse of solitary confinement grows, the Massachusetts court’s ruling in LaChance is a ray of hope for those struggling to end solitary confinement around the nation.

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