MANCHESTER — Officially, it's called the segregated-housing unit, block 2B, a pod at the Valley Street jail where inmates are brought for disciplinary reasons.
Unofficially, it's called "The Hole," and it was a factor in lawsuits brought by four Valley Street Jail inmates who claimed they were sent there in 2002 after being unfairly accused of threatening a corrections officer.
In three separate trials, all four inmates received jury judgments against Hillsborough County — one received $100,002. The county brought the verdict to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston, but was unsuccessful.
In appeal court rulings, judges said the jury verdicts gave credence to testimony about conditions on cell block 2B:
• Inmates were allowed only a sheet, mattress, pillow and prison uniform. Other items were forbidden, such as legal papers, reading material, writing instruments and personal hygiene articles.
• Each cell contained a sink and toilet, but jailers restricted water use in order to prevent deliberate flooding. "If any inmate needed to flush his toilet, get a drink, or wash his hands, he had to ask a correctional officer to turn on the water momentarily," reads a 2005 U.S. First Circuit Court decision written by Justice Bruce Selya. Frequently, a corrections officer was not nearby, and even if he were, the officer could ignore the request or dawdle in fulfilling it.
• Inmates were allowed out of their cell only once every three days, in shackles, for a five-minute shower. They could not make telephone calls, receive mail or have visitors. They could only see their lawyer, if the lawyer asked to see the client.
• Inmates were subject to as many as five strip-searches a day, sometimes with unwashed hands.
• Meals provided to inmate Palacio "Big Mex" Paladin were half-sized; he lost 100 pounds in his time in The Hole.
"The evidence supported the jury's finding that the unconstitutional conditions were imposed pursuant to a recognized prison policy, custom, or practice," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Steven McAuliffe in 2007.
Judgments amounted to $5,500 for Antonio King; $20,000 for Jason Suprenant; $100,000 for Paladin; $50,000 for Richard West. With lawyer fees, the payments exceeded $244,000.
Superintendent David Dionne said conditions are now different in the segregated housing unit.
Inmates are let outside their cell for an hour a day, when they can have access to reading and writing materials. Even inside the cell, they have access to such materials if they have a court case pending, he said.
Dionne also said that water is only turned off if an inmate attempts to flood the cell.
During a tour of the jail this summer, a reporter spoke to Luis Aviles Rivera, a 19-year-old inmate in his 12th day of a 15-day stint in cell block 2B. Rivera said he was sent to The Hole for smacking an inmate.
He said he had no problems with the corrections officers.
"They treat everybody good," Rivera said, "they show you respect."