Category: Prison Conditions (page 1 of 5)

Policy Directors Joan Steffen and Sheridan Cunningham Testify on Proposed Revisions to DOC Mail Regulations

On February 5, 2021, PLAP Policy Directors Joan Steffen and Sheridan Cunningham submitted written testimony on proposed changes to the regulations governing mail procedures in Massachusetts prisons, 103 CMR 481. Joan also provided oral testimony at a public hearing on January 29, 2021.

Sheridan and Joan began by emphasizing PLAP’s familiarity with the Department of Correction (DOC) mail process. PLAP student attorneys interact with hundreds of people incarcerated in Massachusetts via mail each year. PLAP student attorneys have also represented incarcerated clients in disciplinary hearings who have been accused of misusing the mail process, including allegations of introducing illicit drugs via mail. PLAP has observed an increase in such allegations in recent years, including many allegations based on unreliable field tests that are ultimately proven to be specious.

In what it describes as an effort to prevent the introduction of illicit drugs into DOC facilities, DOC has proposed several changes to 103 CMR 481. These proposed changes include photocopying all incoming legal and non-legal mail, as well as eliminating time limits on mail processing. Joan and Sheridan’s testimony emphasized the burdens that these proposed changes would place on PLAP’s clients and all people incarcerated in DOC facilities, as well as their loved ones.

First, Joan and Sheridan argued that photocopying all incoming legal mail would pose “an unacceptable risk of breaching the confidentiality of attorney-client communications.” The proposed photocopying system cannot ensure full confidentiality because modern copiers have internal memory that allow documents to be printed again later, and there is an increased risk that DOC employees will inadvertently read privileged materials. As Joan and Sheridan emphasized, “The right to confidential attorney-client communications is essential and must be preserved, particularly in an environment where the person in custody may well be involved in legal proceedings with the Commonwealth regarding his underlying conviction, or with the Department that has him in custody.” Joan and Sheridan argued that DOC could adopt alternative provisions to prevent introduction of illicit drugs without infringing on attorney-client privilege, such as adopting a mail authentication system to distinguish authentic legal mail from counterfeit mail.

In addition to posing a threat to attorney-client privilege, the proposed changes would hinder the ability of people in prison to communicate with their loved ones. DOC has proposed using a third-party photocopying vendor to copy all incoming non-legal mail; incarcerated people would then be provided only with the photocopies of the original letters. As Joan and Sheridan emphasized, people in prison “are separated from their families and other loved ones for incredibly long periods of time, and often the only physical connection they are able to have with them is to be able to touch the same handwritten card that they touched, or the drawing that their child drew them.” This separation is particularly acute during the COVID-19 pandemic, given the restrictions on in-person visits. The proposed changes would also likely lead to delays in mail delivery; as Joan and Sheridan note, the adoption of a similar system in Pennsylvania has led to an increase in complaints about lost and delayed mail.

DOC’s proposal to eliminate time limits on mail processing would also undermine the ability of incarcerated people to communicate with their loved ones, as well as their attorneys. DOC has proposed eliminating the requirement that outgoing mail be delivered to the post office within 24 hours of collection and that incoming mail be delivered to incarcerated persons within 24 hours of receipt by DOC. As Joan and Sheridan emphasize, incarcerated people “rely on timely mail processing for a host of reasons, including compliance with external deadlines, and providing assurances and updates to loved ones about their status and wellbeing.” Such mail communication is especially crucial given the restrictions on in-person communication due to COVID-19; PLAP has also relied more heavily on mail to communicate with clients during the pandemic.

DOC’s proposed changes, Joan and Sheridan conclude, are costly, fail to address DOC’s goals, and undermine the ability of people in prison to communicate with loved ones during a global pandemic. Joan and Sheridan encourage DOC to study the implementation of photocopying systems in other states before asking Massachusetts taxpayers to pay for a similar system here. They emphasize that DOC could better achieve its aims of reducing drug use and recidivism “by expanding access to substance use therapy, mental health care, and medically-assisted treatment; and improving access to programming.” Finally, they argue that the proposals will hinder communications between incarcerated people and supporters beyond the prison walls, and would thus, “in large part, punish prisoners, spouses, children, pen-pals, and other loved ones who have done nothing wrong.”

You can read Joan and Sheridan’s full testimony here.

The State of the Massachusetts Department of Correction: Souza-Baranowski & Beyond

On Monday March 9, PLAP hosted a discussion about conditions at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC) and throughout the Massachusetts prison system. The discussion was moderated by PLAP Liaison Alexis Yeboah-Kodie (JD ’21) and featured Elizabeth Matos, Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts; Jurrell Laronal, an abolitionist and community organizer who previously spent ten years incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons; and Ayana Aubourg, Director of Programs at Families for Justice as Healing and the Co-Founder/Co-Executive Director of Sisters Unchained.

The speakers began the discussion by detailing the widespread and brutal crackdown by officers at SBCC, which followed a fight on January 10th in which three officers were injured. As Matos put it, “What happened after January 10th, in our experience—and we’ve been around since 1972—was pretty unprecedented.” Starting around January 23rd, correctional officers, dressed in riot gear and accompanied by dogs, went cell-by-cell and assaulted people unprovoked. Over 120 assaults were reported to PLS in just five weeks; by comparison, only 44 assaults at SBCC were reported in the entire previous year. Laronal emphasized the severity of these attacks: “We’re not talking about small beatings. We’re talking about abuses. A lot of incarcerated people got sent out to outside hospitals.” Matos also noted that the assaults have contributed to a “huge mental health crisis” at SBCC. Furthermore, because all of the people involved in the January 10th altercation were moved to other prisons, all of these assaults at SBCC were against people who were not involved.

Laronal connected these recent assaults to a broader culture amongst officers that he experienced while he was incarcerated. As he put it, “Behind those walls, anything can happen…The culture that exists inside the prison system, with the guards, is that they can do whatever. It’s control with violence.” Matos also emphasized that these attacks were “state-sanctioned” and not the result of “a bunch of rogue officers.” Aubourg suggested that this behavior spurs from a narrative that “they’re locking up the worst of the worst people, but really they’re creating the worst of the worst conditions for people who are trying to survive prison.”

The speakers emphasized the burden that this crackdown has placed on families of incarcerated people. For a period of over a week after January 24th, people incarcerated at SBCC were only allowed out of their cells to shower and make phone calls for around 15 minutes total per day. They only had a brief amount of time during which to speak to their families about what they had experienced. Families of those who were sent to hospitals for treatment were not told where their loved ones were sent and could not communicate with them. As Aubourg put it, “It’s important to emphasize how the DOC is depriving families of human contact.”

Fortunately, the severity of this crackdown has spurred an impressive amount of organizing from community leaders like Matos, Laronal, and Aubourg. Organizers and families have pressured groups of state legislators to visit SBCC and investigate the conditions first-hand. State Senator Jamie Eldridge, for example, released a statement criticizing DOC for failing to improve conditions in line with the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act. Laronal emphasized that more sustained and rigorous pressure on elected officials can help to improve accountability: “If half of this room were to call their legislators, it would start an uproar.”

The speakers emphasized that SBCC cannot be addressed in a vacuum: for real change to occur, the culture of violence and abuse needs to be addressed throughout the Department of Correction. The same agency that is turning a blind eye to the crisis at SBCC is also pushing to build a new $50 million women’s prison. DOC is thus seeking to redirect resources away from rehabilitation and community-based programs. The public attention focused on SBCC provides an opportunity to push Beacon Hill for a real change in how it spends resources. As Matos put it, “For so long this has been out of sight and out of mind and people just haven’t cared. Now we have an opportunity.”

PLAP’s Joel Thompson on Solitary Confinement Reform Bill


Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge recently organized a legislative press conference on a new criminal justice reform bill that he has proposed. The bill would provide additional protections to those who are placed in solitary confinement, such as ensuring placement review hearings for anyone who is placed in segregated housing and providing them the opportunity for legal representation at those hearings.

PLAP supervising attorney Joel Thompson spoke at the press conference, alongside a group of solitary confinement survivors and advocates. As Joel remarks, “Unfortunately, what our experience has proven is that it’s too easy to put someone in the hole. It’s too difficult to get someone out of the hole. It’s too easy for it to become the default. What should be, at worst, an extraordinary measure becomes the normal. The exception becomes the rule, for some individuals anyway. Senate Docket 2532 would make changes to improve this process, to really make substantial change for our clients and for all prisoners.”

The entire press conference can be viewed here (Joel’s remarks start at 51:25). The proposed bill can be viewed here.

2020 Prison Law Summer Job Search Guide

The UCLA Prison Law and Policy Program has released its 2020 Summer Job Search Guide with information about organizations and offices around the country who work on behalf of incarcerated people and who are looking for summer interns.

The Prison Law and Policy Program also hosts the Prison Law JD listserv for current law students and recent law graduates nationwide who are interested in working to promote the rights of incarcerated people and achieve criminal justice reform more broadly. The Program’s director is Professor Sharon Dolovich, a Harvard Law and PLAP alumna.

Read the 2020 Summer Job Search Guide.

First Massachusetts Jails End In-Person Visitation

The Bristol County Sheriff’s office intends to end in-person visitation in two Dartmouth facilities, replacing it with video calls. The Bristol County House of Correction and the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office Women’s Center will be the first jails in Massachusetts to make the transition.

These Bristol County facilities hold both inmates serving sentences and individuals awaiting trial. They currently have a non-contact policy for visits, in which inmates speak to their friends and family over a phone through a Plexiglas window. Under the new policy, visitors will not enter the actual jails and will instead be directed to an onsite trailer equipped with computers and video conferencing software manufactured by Securus, a private company that many correctional facilities contract for telephone and video communication services. Calls that take place from the trailer will be free of charge. Remote video calls will also eventually be possible but will require virtual visitors to pay an undetermined fee. The new policy will not apply to attorney visits, nor will it affect inmates housed in the Dartmouth ICE facility or the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford.

According to the Bristol County Sheriff’s office, abolishing in-person visitation is part of an effort to reduce the flow of contraband entering the jails. Despite visits taking place through a Plexiglas barrier, drugs and weapons have still been smuggled into the facilities. Officials from the Bristol County House of Correction reported a recent incident in which inmates responsible for post-visitation cleanup obtained a strip of the narcotic Suboxone that had been tucked behind chipped paint on the visitors’ side of the Plexiglas.

The ACLU of Massachusetts has voiced its opposition to the video-only visitation policy. Spokesperson Aaron Wolfson criticized the plan, stating, “As any Skype user can tell you, video communication may provide a benefit to people who are far apart or unable to travel, but it’s no substitute for being in the same room with a person you love. Cutting off the human contact of in-person visitation is cruel to people in jail, their families, and loved ones.”

The new policy is expected to take effect in approximately one month. John Fitzpatrick, who, along with Joel Thompson, is one of the two Supervising Attorneys for the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, said, “This is a problematic policy change. It further dehumanizes an already marginalized prisoner population. It would be surprising if this were not eventually challenged in court. Unfortunately the current Bristol County Sheriff implementing this restriction has a history of making controversial, regressive pronouncements about prisoners in his custody. His latest limit on in-person visitation is both unsurprising and disappointing. Emphasizing punishment in this way rather than rehabilitation and reintegration is contrary to the current bipartisan political consensus favoring prison reform at the national and state level.”

Massachusetts DOC Will No Longer Hold Those Seeking Substance Use Treatment in Sex Offender Facility

On July 18, the Department of Correction agreed to transfer 14 men out of the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, the medium-security DOC facility that holds prisoners who are or may be civilly committed as sexually dangerous persons. The 14 men were not serving sentences for sex offenses and indeed were not convicted of any crimes whatsoever; they had been temporarily committed for drug and alcohol abuse treatment. This transfer comes as the result of a civil complaint filed against the Commonwealth by Prisoners’ Legal Services. The complaint, filed on behalf of 11 of these civilly committed men, alleged that they suffered abuse at MTC and received inadequate addiction treatment. All 14 men at MTC will be returned to the minimum-security prison in Plymouth where they were previously held. As part of the agreement, the DOC will end its practice of sending men who have been civilly committed for substance abuse treatment to MTC.

Days before the agreement was reached, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Anthony Campo criticized the placement of men with substance abuse disorders in the same institution as criminally convicted and civilly committed sex offenders. “I don’t know why someone who is committed for the treatment of alcohol and drugs should be subjected to the trappings of prison life… I think the best thing is to get them to a therapeutic environment that is the most appropriate,” Judge Campo said during a July 14 hearing. The men in question were originally sent to the minimum-security Plymouth facility under a law called Section 35, which states that individuals whose substance use disorders pose a risk of serious harm may be involuntarily civilly committed for up to 90 days.

In its complaint, Prisoners’ Legal Services reported that the conditions at MTC were so poor that three men attempted suicide. One man cut a vein in his arm, to which correctional officers allegedly responded by pepper spraying him and placing him in isolation after he received stitches. The men also claimed that some MTC residents, who prepared the facility’s meals, put staples and other inedible objects in their food. The individuals with substance abuse disorders, several of whom have been sexually abused in the past, reported being targeted by sex offenders for verbal harassment, including threats to rape their family members. The complaint states that men who protested these conditions or harmed themselves were strip searched in front of sex offenders before being placed into the “Minimum Privilege Unit,” where they were held in their cells for 23 hours a day.

The DOC disputed some of these claims, stating that the men committed for substance abuse treatment were housed separately from other MTC prisoners. As for the allegations of inadequate addiction treatment, the DOC argued that the men received both group therapy and treatment from a social worker. State officials reported that the men were originally moved from Plymouth to Bridgewater as a result of disruptive and, in some cases, violent, behavior.

Prisoners’ Legal Services is pushing to have all men who have been civilly committed under Section 35 transferred out of any prison facilities to Department of Public Health-operated treatment centers and hospitals. The Plymouth facility to which the 14 men will be returned currently houses nearly 250 men civilly committed for substance use treatment, but it is still a prison operated by the DOC. Per the agreement, the men are expected to be transferred by July 27.

For further details, see the Boston Globe’s reporting on this story:

Substance Abusers to Move Out of Sex Offender Facility

Worse Than Jail: Addicts Civilly Committed Say DOC Abused Them and Failed to Treat Them

Judge Troubled by Allegations from Civilly Committed Addicts

Nationwide Prison Strike Enters Second Month

Inmates in prisons across the country have been striking since September 9th, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison riots.  Prisoners are utilizing both labor strikes and hunger strikes to protest mass incarceration and prison labor conditions.  One organization heavily involved in the strike, the Free Alabama Movement, issued a press release highlighting the use of underpaid or unpaid prison labor by governments and corporations.  As the strike has continued, inmates in multiple states have reported retaliation and harsh treatment in response to their actions, including solitary confinement of organizers and the use of tear gas and riot gear.

In Massachusetts, inmates at Souza-Baranowski correctional center staged a peaceful protest on September 8th in response to new proposed regulations regarding visitation and communication.  One such regulation would limit the number of visitors on each inmate’s pre-approved visitor list to five at a time.  Advocates argue that these regulations interfere with prisoners’ ability to stay connected to their family and community support systems.

Upcoming PLAP Event: “A Conversation with Jules Lobel: Public Service Litigation & Solitary Confinement.”

Here is the link to the event:


Op-ed written from inside Attica Correctional Facility argues for free college courses



“What if, a few times a week, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, were streamed on the prison’s internal station, channel 3? … The MOOCs, which are free for the rest of the world, could help American prisoners become more educated and connected.”

Read the full NYTimes article, by John J. Lennon, here.

“Prison is Not for Punishment in Sweden. We Get People into Better Shape”

“Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: they have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us,” says Nils Öberg, director-general of Sweden’s prison and probation service.

The United States prison system is widely regarded as broken. Prisons were supposed to “rehabilitate” offenders who have wronged society by punishing them with a prison sentence. Unfortunately, the United States prison system has failed to rehabilitate thus producing high recidivism rates and overall crime. In Sweden, they are testing a new approach to crime. Oberg, the director-general, believes in addressing the inmate’s needs in order for he or she to correct the behavior that led them to prison in the first place. Sweden’s prison rates are significantly lower after they implemented this approach. They’ve also been fortunate enough to actually close prisons because of the lowered crime rate.

Older posts