BOSTON -- A month after Gov. Charlie Baker signed a major criminal justice overhaul into law, debate around the issue is not yet settled, and prisoners' rights advocates on Monday urged lawmakers to reject some of Baker's recommended changes to the new law.

Baker signed two criminal justice laws on April 13, and at the same time offered a new bill, which he said would make technical modifications he'd already discussed with lawmakers and also address "serious concerns" he had with the some policies pursued in the initial legislation.

During an hourlong Judiciary Committee hearing, language in the governor's bill dealing with solitary confinement emerged as a flashpoint.

The new law banned correctional facilities from holding someone in restrictive housing if that person has been diagnosed with a "serious mental illness." Baker is seeking to narrow the law's definition of "serious mental illness."

"I want to emphasize that the definition of serious mental illness in the law as signed is exceptionally broad," Lon Povich, Baker's chief legal counsel, told the committee. "It includes any inmate with anxiety disorder no matter how well-managed with medication, and trauma- and stress-related disorders. As a practical matter, this would cause a significant number of inmates in restrictive housing to be deemed seriously mentally ill, at significant cost.


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The new definition would be "extremely difficult and quite costly" to implement, said Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian.

"I believe that an extremely high percentage would qualify under this legislation, which would be very taxing on us to provide the amount of help that they would need," Koutoujian said. "Right now, we believe that we're doing a great job with regard to our population in our facilities. It would draw attention from the more significant problems with mental health we have right now. If we open it up to all people with anxiety disorders -- quite honestly, it's jail, and most people when they're in jail are going to be anxious."

Representatives from Prisoners Legal Service and the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers testified against the change, arguing it would roll back protections for people with psychiatric disabilities or mental illness.

Prisoners Legal Service staff attorney Jesse White said her organization had "direct experience with many prisoners suffering" under previous definitions of serious mental illness.

"We even had the heartbreaking experience of having a client in the departmental disciplinary unit commit suicide after advocacy failed to get him diverted into a secure treatment unit because he did not meet the definition of serious mental illness to which we would return under the proposed amendments," she said.

Joseph Silveira, a New York resident whose brother Matthew is incarcerated in Massachusetts, said his brother suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and, under the new law, would have been placed in a secure treatment unit with access to mental health professionals instead of spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement for five months.

"This is not just an inmate thing," Silveira said. "When my brother is suffering, my mother is suffering. We're suffering."

He said his brother "had a very difficult time bouncing back" when he was returned to general population from solitary confinement.

"It is my belief that solitary confinement for those with mental health issues keeps them in the institutional realm," Silveira said. "It keeps them broken. They stay a burden and a bill to the Massachusetts taxpayers."

Povich said "very good progress" had been made on some of Baker's other ideas in the month since he filed the bill, with technical changes included in the Senate version of a midyear spending bill passed earlier this month. 

Those measures, Povich said, include adding language to make sure law enforcement agencies have access to sealed records, allowing the Department of Correction and sheriffs to take away TV and radio privileges for prisoners in restrictive housing as a disciplinary measure, and providing immunity for doctors and state employees who participate in the medical parole process.