Category: Prison Reform (page 1 of 3)

Policy Directors Sheridan Cunningham and Joan Steffen Testify on Revisions to Medical Parole Regulations

On September 16, PLAP Policy Directors Sheridan Cunningham and Joan Steffen submitted written testimony to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) on proposed revisions to the regulations governing medical parole, 501 CMR 17.00. Sheridan also provided oral testimony in a Public Hearing held by EOPSS on September 16.

Medical parole is a mechanism by which prisoners who are terminally ill or permanently incapacitated can request supervised release from prison. The medical parole statute (G.L. c. 127 § 119A) was created in 2018; it was included in the Criminal Justice Reform Act that was passed that year. The proposed revisions to 501 CMR 17.00, the specific regulations governing the administration of medical parole, arose after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court invalidated existing regulations earlier this year. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that 1) prison superintendents are still required to review petitions that they deemed incomplete or inadequate; 2) the burden for developing a medical parole plan, procuring a medical diagnosis, and assessing the petitioner’s risk of violence should be shifted to the superintendent; and 3) the commissioner must supply the petitioner with all documents that the superintendent submitted with their medical parole recommendation.

Sheridan and Joan argued that further changes are needed to expand accessibility of medical parole and improve the system’s responsiveness to major health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. As they argued in their testimony, “The current COVID-19 pandemic underscores the mismatch between the prison environment and the needs of elderly, infirm, and seriously ill prisoners.” Sheridan and Joan further noted, “Although we have seen the court-ordered release of many pre-trial detainees, releases of sentenced prisoners have remained consistent with release rates prior to the pandemic.” While the Supreme Judicial Court “specifically cited medical parole as one of the tools at the DOC’s disposal to effectuate releases,” the current and proposed parole regulations have “impeded, and will continue to impede, the release of medically vulnerable petitioners unnecessarily.”

Sheridan and Joan argued for four specific changes to the existing regulations:

  1. The definition of “debilitating condition” should be removed or revised to exclude unnecessary and irrelevant conditions.
  2. The assessment for risk of violence outlined in the proposed regulation should be revised to exclude irrelevant considerations.
  3. To avoid unnecessary inefficiency and delay, the medical parole petitioner should be afforded additional procedural safeguards.
  4. The regulation should include specific provisions for serving cognitively disabled prisoners who, by reason of their disability, cannot otherwise access medical parole.

Sheridan and Joan’s full testimony can be read 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.”

Student Attorney Spotlight: Matthew Disler


PLAP Student Attorney Matthew Disler (J.D. ’21) provides a first-hand account of his experience representing a client in a disciplinary hearing this past fall. Matthew took the case with the assistance of Kaitlyn Gerber (J.D. ’19) and Sadie Hillier (J.D. ’20). 


In 2018, guards woke a man incarcerated in a minimum security prison and informed him that he had been implicated in a scheme to introduce contraband. He had no knowledge of the scheme, which he tried to explain. But when he received his disciplinary report, he learned how officers had linked him to the seized contraband. The bust consisted of several packages of material, including cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and cell phones, and one of the packages was labeled with a word that matched his surname.

The prisoner was charged with committing fifteen separate rule violations for allegedly attempting to receive this material. He is entitled to a hearing on those charges, but his case moved slowly, and he was pulled back from minimum security to medium security while waiting to resolve his case. Medium security prisons offer fewer privileges, and fewer of the program or work opportunities that enable prisoners to earn “good time” – a reduction in their sentence. After several months without any progress toward resolution, this prisoner called PLAP to ask for assistance, and I agreed to take his case.

It was my first disciplinary hearing, and despite the training I had received in PLAP, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never even visited a prison before, and when I traveled to the prison to meet with my client, I wasn’t confident that I could provide satisfactory answers to any of his questions. I didn’t know his chances for getting his charges dismissed, what evidence the prison had collected or would disclose, or even when we could expect a hearing. In the meantime, although my client had had a parole hearing scheduled, the pending disciplinary report meant that he would not be paroled, or transferred back to minimum security, while his charges remained pending. In short, he was in limbo.

It remained this way for months, despite my efforts to obtain discovery and move the case forward. Throughout the spring semester and into the summer, we received no updates from the prison. Finally, in August, the disciplinary officer in charge of the case informed me that the evidence was finally available, and that after I reviewed it (many of the documents were deemed “view only,” meaning I could visit the prison and see them but could not have copies) we could schedule a hearing for early September—more than a year after the contraband seizure that led to these allegations.

By the time of the disciplinary hearing, I had learned many more facts that helped my client’s case. His surname, which the contraband scheme participants had allegedly written on one package and which served as the main piece of evidence against him, turned out to be very common among people incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons. Furthermore, all the other words written on the packages were nicknames, not surnames; it would have been odd for the participants to use nicknames in labeling all of the packages but an actual surname for just one of them. And none of the other individuals involved in the alleged contraband scheme had ever identified my client as a participant. The only connection was that my client had, before his incarceration, been an acquaintance of one of the scheme’s purported organizers. But it was neither unusual nor suspicious for two incarcerated people to have met each other before imprisonment.

I explained all of these points at the disciplinary hearing. As I argued, the charges in disciplinary reports need to be proven by a preponderance of the evidence. A word written on one package, where no other evidence pointed to my client and no participant in the scheme had ever identified my client as a participant, clearly failed to meet that standard.

Thankfully, the hearing officer agreed and dismissed all fifteen charges against my client. There simply was no “corroborating evidence” that my client knew about the contraband or was the intended recipient, he wrote. The evidence could not meet the burden of proof for any of the charges.

While I was thrilled about our victory, it was also a bittersweet moment. The hearing officer’s decision confirmed what the PLAP team and I had always thought: that the charges against my client were flimsy and couldn’t stand up to any real scrutiny. But that validation meant that my client’s life had been uprooted because of a series of events that were entirely out of his control. A word scribbled on a package that he knew nothing about had changed everything, from his custody level to his sentence length and parole eligibility. And the repercussions of that lost time won’t disappear just because we won the case.

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.

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.

Obama Bans Solitary Confinement of Juveniles in Federal Prisons

WASHINGTON- President Obama on Monday banned the practice of holding juveniles in solitary confinement in federal prisons, saying it could lead to “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.”
The move, which Mr. Obama outlined in an op-ed article published by the Washington Post on Monday night, adds the weight of the federal government to a growing movement among state prison administrators, who have begun sharply limiting or ending the use of solitary confinement.
Mr. Obama said federal prisons would no longer use solitary confinement for juveniles or for inmates serving time for low-level infractions. He said the change, along with expanded mental health treatment, would affect as many as 10,000 inmates in the federal system, about a tenth of those being held in solitary confinement in the United States, including in state prisons.

To read more, click here.

President Obama After Prison Visit

President Obama visited prison 7-17-15

President Obama spent time at El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison near Oklahoma City that is home to 1,045 male inmates. The stop was part of his campaign to reform the criminal justice system, which includes several policies aimed at life inside the nation’s prisons, including addressing the practice of placing inmates in solitary confinement, changing sentencing guidelines to better reflect the severity of crimes, and implementing programs aimed at helping ex-offenders re-acclimate to life on the outside.

Click here to read the full article

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.

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