Broad Legislation on Prison Reform, April 2018

In April 2018 the Governor signed into law S. 2371, a sweeping criminal justice bill that addresses a litany of issues from the bail system, to court fees and fines, to mandatory minimum sentences and, of course, reform of the use of solitary confinement. The new law states qualified mental health professionals are to screen prisoners before placement in solitary and must continue to review their placement at regular intervals. The seriously mentally ill, pregnant women, and those with permanent physical disabilities shall not be held in restrictive housing. The bill also aims to provide those placed in restrictive housing with vocational, educational, and rehabilitative programming.

Massachusetts Agency Policy and Practice Sharply Reduce Solitary Confinement

Beginning in 2008-2009, the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) made policy and practice changes that significantly reduced the use of room confinement in all their facilities. DYS operates ten secure residential programs and a network of residential care facilities. These changes were originally spurred by a two youth suicides that took place while residents were in their rooms. The agency’s mission is to maximize each child’s time in programming and treatment on any given day, so time spent in room confinement prevented youth from engaging in programming, which became a serious concern . After a major shift in policies and practice, the use of room confinement gradually decreased. By April, 2016, the average time youth spent in isolation in DYS facilities was less than 1.25 hours.

DYS policy prohibits the use of room confinement as a form of discipline. The agency does permit limited periods of isolation when a youth exhibits dangerous and disruptive behavior and less restrictive alternatives to control the behavior have failed. However, staff must obtain authorization from agency administrators to use isolation for periods longer than 15 minutes, and staff must secure approvals from more senior officials outside of the facility as the requested time increases. Staff are trained to use alternative measures – including de-escalation, behavior management, and conflict resolution techniques – and to assist youth who are placed in isolation to develop an “Exit Strategy” to get out of isolation quickly and transition back into regular programming. This policy, coupled with other reforms at the agency, have led DYS to significantly reduce the use of room confinement. For more information:

Massachusetts DYS Policy on Room Confinement

Article describing broad improvements in Massachusetts DYS (2017)