BOSTON—On Thursday, March 23, a group of survivors of solitary confinement, and their allies, some dressed in orange jump suits and shackled with ankle chains, walked from Boston City Hall to the State House to deliver 1,000 signed postcards to Governor Baker calling upon him to end the practice of long term solitary confinement in Massachusetts. The postcards included a clear call to the Governor to immediately shut down the Departmental Disciplinary Unit (DDU) at Walpole prison. Governor Baker can shut down the DDU with a simple change in regulations.
Massachusetts is one of only two states in the country that holds an individual in solitary confinement for up to 10 years for a single offense.
Su’ganni Tiuza, member of Black and Pink, a Boston-based national organization advocating for LGBTQ/HIV+ prisoners, who is currently incarcerated wrote to the organization about his experience in the DDU. He detailed the harm the DDU can cause and wrote, “DDU must be shut down because it turned flawed men into monsters. The DDU structure is a proven success in breaking spirits and demonizing souls!”
Michael Cox, a survivor of solitary confinement who participated in the action, said, “The DDU is one part of a much larger problem of solitary confinement in Massachusetts. The Governor needs to take the immediate action to shut down the DDU, and after that we need comprehensive legislative reforms that will abolish solitary confinement as we know it.”
“The action was a powerful statement about the harms solitary confinement causes,” said Black & Pink Executive Director Rev. Jason Lydon. “Survivors of solitary confinement and allies took to the street and to the Governor’s office to demand action that would bring an end to the worst parts of solitary confinement in Massachusetts. The action was very successful in its aims to lift up the voices of survivors and disrupt the order of things in the Governor’s office.”
The action, which garnered 25 participants according to Lydon, is part of a statewide effort to bring attention to the harms solitary confinement causes people in Massachusetts. While the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) claims that they do not utilize solitary confinement, the reality is that anywhere between 600 and 2,500 people are housed in 20-plus hour-a-day locked cells in prisons and jails across the Commonwealth. Exact numbers are impossible to find as sheriff’s departments and the DOC are not required to share data about these conditions of confinement.
The walk from Boston City Hall to the State House happened at the end of a performance of Mariposa and the Saint. The play is based on letters exchanged between Sara (Mariposa) Fonseca and Julia Steele Allen. Over the course of three years, the two women created the play as Mariposa wrote her letters from a solitary confinement cell and Julia wrote hers from outside prison walls. Advocates in Massachusetts brought this play to be seen by elected officials and community members with the hopes that viewers would be moved to take action.
Along with the campaign to shut down the DDU, there are multiple bills sitting in the Judiciary and Public Safety Committees that would drastically change the conditions of confinement in solitary, force data collection and public distribution about who is affected by solitary, and create oversight of the conditions Massachusetts prisoners are subjected to.
“The Governor can expect that we will continue to escalate our tactics until he takes some action,” Lydon said.