POSTED: Saturday, March 1, 2008
by Jeannie Greeley
Forty years ago, Bobby Dellelo raced through Boston’s Downtown Crossing, a botched jewelry store heist in his wake and his future growing dimmer by the minute.
His partner in crime had shot and killed the police officer who responded to the robbery. That accomplice would later take his own life; Dellelo, meanwhile, would be sentenced to life behind bars.
From that point on, Dellelo’s world would consist of a series of numbers: five prisons; three escapes; two appeals to have his first-degree murder conviction overturned; and, today, four years since he has been free.
His release date?
“November 19, 2003,” he says without hesitation over a cup of coffee at Cambridge’s 1369 cafe. “My birthday.”
Reminded by a reporter that the very day he is being interviewed is, in fact, Nov. 19, the 66-year-old ex-con beams: “Well, happy birthday to me!”
But when it comes to picking the worst facility in the prison system, it’s not numbers but three letters that are seared in Dellelo’s mind: DDU.
Those are the same initials lawyers, prisoner advocates and correction officers repeat when they are asked to name the most prisoner-unfriendly place in the Massachusetts correctional system.
The abbreviation is shorthand for Departmental Disciplinary Unit, the area where inmates at the MCI-Cedar Junction maximum security prison in Walpole are housed when they are removed from the general prison population for disciplinary infractions.
“I spent five years and one month in there,” says Dellelo. “To this day I only sleep 45 minutes to an hour, and then I wake up and go back to sleep. And I’ve been out four years.”
Dellelo recalls hellish scenes in which his cell in the DDU was turned inside out on a daily basis, meals were tampered with by guards and bloodied shackles were passed from inmate to inmate — a practice he claims caused him to contract a rare form of hepatitis C, for which he had tested negative twice before entering the DDU.
Dellelo says he quickly learned to engage in a mental game of juggling crazy thoughts to keep his actions sane.
“I fantasized about cutting guards’ heads off and rolling them down the corridor,” he remembers. “If you don’t think that way, you don’t survive. You internalize it, and it tears you apart.”
Dellelo credits his survival in the DDU to a prior experience with segregation and to having earned degrees in sociology and psychology, which helped him manage his mental anguish.
But others whom Dellelo met during his DDU days weren’t as lucky — like one fellow inmate who, he says, was so mentally incapacitated that his mind was like “burnt rubber.”
“When he got out in the street — some poor girl, he cut her face up,” says Dellelo. “I mean just chopped her face all up. I mean there was no red flags that this was coming. It was DDU that tore him apart.”
Other DDU inmates, Dellelo says, would hide urine or feces in their mouths that they would spit on other prisoners once they were out in the yard. Meanwhile, those who didn’t act out their aggressions usually ended up taking it out on themselves.
“It’s a really insane place,” he says. “Put a human being’s mind through that, and a lot of people don’t make it. They can’t re-adjust and come out of that.”
Dellelo himself recalls the jarring experience of meeting with a lawyer for the first time after he had been in the DDU for four months. He totally lacked concentration; every movement and sound pulled his attention in a different direction.
“Verbal skills and body language separate because you talk through this little slot,” he says. “This is what DDU does to the human mind. People look at it from the security context, and they don’t understand that these are human beings that you’re doing this s—t to.”
No way out
Isolation units such as the DDU are the subject of nationwide debate over prison reform, with numerous organizations actively campaigning for their closure on the grounds that they are inhumane and unfit for the mentally ill.
On the other side of the debate are prison officials who see no alternative for unruly inmates who pose a threat to themselves and to prison employees.
However, officials have consciously stopped using terms such as “solitary confinement” and will quickly correct the use of that language by others.
“I really don’t consider that, necessarily, isolation,” says Allison Hallett, deputy superintendent of classification and programs at the state Department of Correction. “That’s a word that they might have used years ago, but that’s not something that they use today.”
But euphemisms don’t alter the oppressive feeling one gets when stepping into a DDU cell at Cedar Junction.
The space is 12 feet 8 inches by 7 feet 6 inches, according to correction officials. Inside is a wooden slab with a mattress, a toilet, a steel sink and a window that is 3 feet long and 4 inches wide.
Inmates are allowed out of the cell for five hours a week, during which time they usually wear wrist and ankle shackles. Only one inmate per tier is allowed out of his cell at a time and is always accompanied by two correction officers.
DDU cells are accessible by passing through several “traps” where visitors and prisoners are separated by locked doors. One then enters a rotunda with a fortress-like “inner control” area towering in the center. There are 12 tiers with 10 to 11 cells per tier. The unit can accommodate 120 inmates; at press time, it held 112.
An inmate can find himself in the DDU for various infractions: initiating group demonstrations; aggravated assault on another inmate or staff member; planning an escape; or being caught with at least two handmade weapons within six months.
“It has to be a very serious offense,” notes Hallett. “It’s almost like they’re committing a crime in prison.”
DDU inmates have all their privileges stripped away, but they can slowly earn them back if they remain “d-free” or avoid further disciplinary reports while in the unit. Privileges max out after four months of d-free behavior, allowing the inmate to keep a radio and television and have four one-hour visits and four 30-minute phone calls per month. The television allows access to educational programming, which is offered at a fifth-grade level through an outside contract with Spectrum Health Systems.
At the end of 2007, only nine of the DDU’s 112 inmates were participating in the educational “perks.”
‘I know what’s wrong’
DDU inmates see the world from three perspectives: through a sliver of a window that overlooks the prison yard; through a slice of glass that looks out on a wall; and from what many describe as a modified dog cage in the recreational area outside, where they are allowed one hour a week.
Catching sight of a prisoner’s face suddenly pressed against the steel door of a DDU cell is enough to make a visitor’s heart quicken.
“You are more than welcome to pull me out of No. 129 if you want to speak to someone about corrupt prison officials,” an African-American inmate shouts through the steel door to a group of journalists touring the facility. He wants to know where the group is from before he launches into a diatribe about the dangers to society when prisoners are housed in isolation. He tells his noisy next-door neighbor — whom he cannot see, even though they are only inches apart — to keep quiet.
Members of the recent media tour spent only10 minutes in the DDU; Bobby Dellelo spent five years there after escaping from the Old Colony Correctional Institute. Though he now suffers panic attacks when he’s in crowds and is emotionally standoffish as a result of his time in the isolation unit, Dellelo says he tries not to let the experience torture him more than it already has.
“I just don’t let it get up underneath my skin. I know what’s wrong; it’s the system,” he says. “If I keep that inside myself, I’m still doing time.”
Detoxing in a cell
While the DDU has been controversial since its creation in 1992, the state’s correctional system at large has come under close scrutiny of late.
A media tour of MCI-Cedar Junction was canceled last November when the prison went into lockdown after a series of violent episodes.
A recent Boston Globe investigative series highlighted the high rate of suicides within the Massachusetts prison population, a disproportionate number of which occurred while prisoners were held in isolation.
And a report on the status of prison overcrowding, released during the third quarter of 2007, shows that the Department of Correction operated at 142 percent of its design capacity. The average daily population was more than 11,000, even though the system was designed to accommodate only 7,802.
“The biggest issue at every facility is overcrowding,” says Steve Kenneway, president of the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union. “Too often, because it’s overcrowded, inmates just sit in their rooms and do nothing. And it’s the idle time that usually gets someone into trouble.”
Overcrowding at the Worcester County House of Correction led to a recent federal court order that the prison reduce its population and the subsequent release of more than 100 inmates whose sentences were not completed.
The women’s prison in Framingham is at a staggering 350 percent of its average daily capacity for those in the awaiting-trial unit. The general prison population is at 124 percent capacity.
One inmate serving a sentence for a DUI conviction describes the harsh transition from the real world to prison:
“I was in a $600 suit,” says the woman, who requested anonymity. “You walk in and you are in another holding cell. It’s so overcrowded that they have to wait for a cot to be available to you.”
The inmate paints a horrific scene of “dope sick” women crowded in cells, many writhing in pain, some vomiting in towels, all trying to single-handedly detoxify whatever drugs their bodies have relied on for years.
“Once you’re in jail, no one gives a f—k,” says the inmate. “I still hadn’t seen a psychiatrist, and I was there 17 days. I kicked my medication myself after being on it for the better part of 11 to 12 years ... in a cell.”
Kenneway says he sees a direct correlation between overcrowding and prison violence.
“It definitely makes it more prevalent only because there’s always somebody in your face when it’s overcrowded,” he says. “When you’ve got guys that are being denied access to their programming, they’ve got little else to do than go back to their blocks and take it out on someone.”
Isolating the problem
In units like the DDU, the issue isn’t overcrowding, but rather isolation.
Many prisoners’ advocates and mental health experts say isolation units lead to an inmate population that is more violent and a greater danger to those imprisoned and to society. Alarmingly, if an inmate’s sentence expires while he is in the DDU, the inmate is released directly to the streets or returned to his family.
“[The DDU] is arguably the most deprivational environment inside of the system,” says Jamie Bissonnette, director of the criminal justice program for American Friends Service Committee in New England.
AFSC started with a campaign to close the DDU at Bridgewater State Hospital — and succeeded with its shuttering in 1972. It later campaigned for the closing of a Departmental Segregation Unit, or DSU, in Walpole’s notorious “10 Block” and was joined in that battle by Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services.
The DSU was successfully shut down by a court ruling in 1988, only to be followed four years later by the opening of the DDU in Walpole.
“Prisons are bureaucratic institutions,” says Bissonnette. “You push in on one side, and it pops out on the other side.”
Nationally, the AFSC is engaged in a campaign called Stop Max (www.afsc.org/stopmax) with the goal being to “end the use of solitary confinement and related forms of torture in US prisons.”
“Putting them in these [solitary] units is the most unproductive response a correctional system could have,” says Bissonnette. “There is nothing of any kind of problem-solving merit that takes place in these kinds of units. Any problem that a prisoner may have will be exacerbated in that environment.”
‘We do more harm than good’
Correctional officials have begun touting a new program, called the High Risk Offender Program, which has been created for DDU inmates. Some think this effort indicates a shift away from the tough-on-crime logic that was aimed at turning prisons into “circles of hell,” to quote former Gov. William F. Weld, and toward a greater emphasis on rehabilitation.
The High Risk Offender Program is a three-month program targeting inmates who are within a year of release from the DDU. Through one-on-one counseling and subsequent group activities, the program addresses basic social skills, such as stress management, coping skills, dealing with irrational thoughts and relapse prevention.
However, inmates must volunteer for the program, and it is offered to only four inmates at a time. Of the first round of participants, three of the four graduated from the program in December.
Hallett notes that completion of the High Risk Offender Program shaves 30 days off an inmate’s DDU sentence and serves as a strong incentive for rehabilitation.
“I am actually very happy with that retention rate because I didn’t know what to expect with these guys in DDU,” she says of the new program. “They don’t really have any history of bettering themselves.”
When Dellelo is told about the new program for DDU inmates, he tags it a Band-Aid remedy for a gaping wound.
“You’re trying to make rational sense out of insanity,” he says. “[Prisons] just get bigger and bigger, and we spend more and more money, and we do more and more damage. For the most part, we do more harm than good.”
Jeannie Greeley is a freelance writer and former Lawyers Weekly reporter. She can be contacted at email@example.com.