Calls Grow For Increased Oversight After Violent Incidents At Max Security Prison
Some Massachusetts lawmakers are pushing for increased oversight of the state Department of Correction and a possible hearing before the Legislature following violence last year at the state’s maximum security prison. A federal lawsuit is expected to be filed soon over allegations that include brutal beatings of prisoners and the use of attack dogs.
The former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts believes there should be a federal investigation into the complaints about violence against prisoners at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center.
“I think it does warrant a federal investigation,” said Andrew Lelling, who stepped down as Massachusetts’ U.S. attorney earlier this year. “The problem with the prison setting is you’re dealing with a population that’s vulnerable because there’s very little visibility as to what happens there.”
The reports from inside the state’s maximum security prison early last year were gruesome.
Prisoners said they were beaten, Tasered and attacked by dogs after a fight broke out in the prison in January of 2020, injuring three correction officers.
Prisoners, lawyers, advocates and some lawmakers allege the DOC reacted harshly to the fight, bringing in special teams of officers in tactical gear to go through the prison. They allege those officers brutally retaliated against prisoners.
One man in custody at Souza, who spoke to WBUR shortly after the melee, said he was severely beaten when the tactical teams went through cells searching for contraband. He said he was forced to strip down to his underwear and was abused by the officers. The man asked WBUR not to use his name because of fears about retaliation.
“Officers just started Tasering me, beating me, punching me, calling me the N-word,” he said. “I ended up going to the outside hospital. I got stitches across my face.”
The DOC has said it brought in the tactical teams to search the prison as part of an effort to improve security after the fight. DOC officials and the correction officers’ union denied reports of abuse. But several lawsuits are pending, and a federal lawsuit could soon be filed.
“We’re in the finishing stages of drafting a federal complaint that alleges excessive force, conspiracy to retaliate against Black and brown prisoners, an extensive cover up that goes from entry level [correction officers] on up to the commissioner of corrections,” said attorney Patty DeJuneas, whose clients, Robert Silva-Prentice and Dionisio Paulino are both incarcerated at Souza.
DeJuneas alleges that both men were beaten during the cell searches and Paulino was attacked and injured by dogs. After the incidents, both men had disciplinary charges filed against them alleging they were the ones who attacked officers. DeJuneas is also fighting an effort by the DOC to ban her from publicly releasing information in the men’s disciplinary reports.
The Boston Globe recently reported that officers made what appear to be false allegations in disciplinary reports. The newspaper also published a DOC video appearing to show officers allowing dogs to attack a handcuffed Paulino.
Lelling says that video is damning.
“What’s intriguing about this situation is that you have pretty decent video,” said Lelling, who is now in private practice with the firm Jones Day. “I suspect that will prompt authorities at the state level and the federal level to take a harder look at that particular incident and the officers who were involved.”
Lelling was still a U.S. attorney when the violence erupted at Souza. He wouldn’t say whether his office discussed a possible federal investigation of the prison at the time, but it did investigate the DOC on a separate issue, and last year released a report finding the department did not provide adequate mental health care to some prisoners.
Negotiations with the DOC to address issues raised in that report are ongoing, but Lelling points out that it focused on larger prison systems, not individual correction officers.
“The hardest part is finding a witness who will actually speak to federal law enforcement because as unfortunately happens sometimes in cases like these, the guards are extremely reluctant to implicate each other in any kind of wrongdoing,” Lelling said.
Gov. Charlie Baker and state Attorney General Maura Healey did not comment on whether their offices would pursue an investigation.
The DOC says it doesn’t comment on litigation, but the department investigates allegations of misconduct.
“DOC expects all personnel to uphold the highest standards of respect, security, care and adhere to the Department’s Code of Conduct, and all allegations of staff misconduct are taken seriously and can be reported through multiple channels,” said a DOC statement. “The Department thoroughly investigates every allegation of staff misconduct brought to its attention.”
Some lawmakers are now calling for stronger oversight of the Department of Correction. A group of lawmakers visited Souza after the violence last year. Among them was state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
“I have no doubt what happened because I spoke directly with the prisoners. I saw the dog bites, I saw the Taser shocks,” Eldridge said. “This was a decision by the superintendent to — instead of just focusing on the handful of incarcerated men who had a negative interaction with a few officers — to punish the entire prison and send a message.”
Eldridge criticizes what he calls a “tough on crime approach” to prisons by Gov. Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. Eldridge says several Democrats are frustrated by a lack of transparency and the slow pace of reforms at DOC.
Earlier this year, lawmakers filed a bill that seeks to reduce harm in correctional settings by creating uniform standards for use of force. State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a Northampton Democrat, says that legislation was prompted by the Souza violence.
“There was no immediate response. There was no figuring out exactly who was responsible, who made these decisions, and who allowed very violent attacks to occur,” said Sabadosa, who was part of the group that visited Souza after the violence last year. “And so there have been a lot of conversations among legislators to see, is there room for independent oversight?”
State Rep. Michael Day, a Stoneham Democrat and House chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, says he is in talks with the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which oversees DOC. But Day says lawmakers may seek to formally question public safety officials about state prisons.
“A formal oversight hearing is one of the tools we have if we’re not getting answers to our questions,” Day said. “I wouldn’t rule that out at this juncture.”
Day says he is focused on “the pace and the full implementation” of a 2018 criminal justice reform law, which called for several changes including reducing the use of solitary confinement in state prisons. He says the Baker administration has been slow to implement the law’s reforms.
“When we pass laws, they’re not suggestions,” Day said. “I have issues with some of the things the administration has done, and it’s our job as lawmakers to make sure laws are implemented.”
One delay Day cites is that lawmakers have twice approved an ombudsman position at DOC. The ombudsman is supposed to ensure the department is complying with health and safety standards during the pandemic and monitor efforts to reduce incarceration. Day says he recently learned that the state has finally contracted for that position to be filled.
Another reform effort that has been delayed is the creation of a commission to review limits on use of force by correction officers and improve their training. Although the commission was established in last year’s police reform bill, it has not been created. Day says he expects a group will be formed and begin work this fall. The commission is supposed to make recommendations by the end of this year.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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