FXB Center Doctoral Student Cohort Member Submits Testimony in Support of Ending Solitary Confinement

Photo of Jasmine Graves and Massachusetts State House

Today, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights doctoral cohort member Jasmine D. Graves submitted written testimony in support of Massachusetts Legislature bills S.1578 and H.2504, which would provide criminal justice reform protections to all prisoners in segregated confinement in Massachusetts.

Graves, a public health researcher and social impact strategist, shared her expertise and research on harms of segregated and restrictive housing in correctional settings.

Read her submitted testimony:

Dear Senate Chair Timilty and House Chair González, 

Thank you to the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, especially the Co-Chairs Senator Timilty and Representative Gonzalez, for this opportunity to share written testimony. I am writing in support of S.1578/H.2504 Criminal Justice Reform Protections to all Prisoners in Segregated Confinement. My name is Jasmine D. Graves and I am a PhD Student in Population Health Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and an affiliate of the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. I am writing today, not on behalf of the institution, but as a public health researcher and social impact strategist, who has dedicated much of my career to documenting the harms of correctional settings and improving correctional health services in New York City. During my tenure as a qualitative researcher within Correctional Health Services at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, I engaged in studies examining the harms of segregated housing units across NYC’s jail system. In 2014, we found that acts of self-harm among people incarcerated were strongly associated with those placed in punitive segregation (solitary confinement). People punished by solitary confinement were approximately 6.9 times as likely to commit acts of self-harm. This association also held true for potentially fatal self-harm. While this study focused on the harms experienced by people held in punitive segregation, I found the same issues were present across other forms of segregated and restrictive housing. In addition to an alarming prevalence of self-harm and injury from use of force, segregated housing units created barriers for people to access services and entitlements like visitation, recreation, showers, and phone calls. Lastly, segregated housing units often compromise health staff’s ability to ability to care for people in need. Issues of “dual loyalty,” for example, between providers and the security apparatus often creates a sense of mistrust between people incarcerated and providers.

With my experience documenting the harms of solitary confinement, I urge you to support S.1578/H.2504. The Massachusetts legislature has an opportunity to intervene and address the harm experienced by your constituents held in State solitary confinement. This legislation is needed now, more than ever, in order to hold the Department of Correction (DOC) accountable and truly end the torture of solitary confinement in Massachusetts (the DOC announced they would end solitary within three years on June 20, 2021).  The DOC has already demonstrated a pattern of behavior in which they have renamed solitary units and reduced the time a person is confined by as little as 15 minutes in order to avoid the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA) mandates. Solitary confinement by another name is still solitary confinement. Legislative action is necessary to ensure that this behavior is not allowed to continue.

What has occurred at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center is a prime example of these DOC tactics to avoid the CJRA mandates.  The north side of Souza has effectively been turned into a supermax facility where people imprisoned in the “general population” are being locked in their cells for approximately 21.5 hours per day. They are being denied access to their property, visitation, and canteen, in addition to access to the yard, gym, law library, good time opportunities, work opportunities, and more. In response to the CJRA, the DOC has created multiple new segregation units where people are being held for 21 hours per day in highly restrictive conditions such as the Secure Adjustment Unit, the Limited Privileges Unit, the Serious Mental Illness Diversion Unit, and the Accountability Programming Unit, none of which are considered “restrictive housing.”  In the case of the Accountability Programming Unit in Framingham, women are being held in conditions indistinguishable from solitary, yet the DOC claims that “no women are in solitary confinement in Massachusetts,” a claim that was repeated in the 2021 Falcon Report (page 15).

The DOC is initiating a multi-year process to end solitary confinement that is under its own complete discretion. The DOC has the power to alter its timeline for ending restrictive housing, create new segregation units as it sees fit, or even stop the process completely. The Falcon Report, and the Department of Justice report before it, have made plain that change is necessary, and the time is now. The Legislature must act in order to ensure that this process is as efficient and transparent as possible.  The solitary confinement provisions of the CJRA were meant to reduce harm and save lives, and it’s imperative the Commonwealth keeps those promises. An Act to Provide Criminal Justice Reform Protections to All Prisoners in Segregated Confinement will help us do so. I urge you to report S.1578/H.2504 out of the committee with a favorable vote as soon as possible. 

For more information on the FXB Center’s racial justice efforts, click here.