For three hours, the prisoners were in control. Inside the state’s maximum-security prison, 47 inmates broke apart tables, smashed computers, destroyed security cameras, and ripped out fire extinguishers in what would become one of the largest prison riots in recent state history.
Department of Correction officers at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley watched the rampage unfold on security cameras after retreating from the unit following a fistfight between inmates. With no authorities in control, the prisoners — many of them wearing masks made of white T-shirts — wrecked their cellblock as they armed themselves with makeshift knives and metal bars, officials said.
“They were getting ready for war,” Daniel J. Bennett, the state’s secretary of public safety and security, said Tuesday.
Finally, guards injected pepper spray into the unit, allowing them to reenter the cellblock and lock up the prisoners. Remarkably, no one was hurt. But Monday’s melee raised questions about why officers allowed the prisoners to destroy the cellblock for three hours.
“I’m very happy that no one was injured but I cannot understand why our clients were left for three hours when, in fact, Souza-Baranowski is a heavily staffed facility and there are two other prisons nearby,” said Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts. “It’s a miracle nobody was injured or killed and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why it took three hours to throw some pepper spray.”
State officials explained the three-hour period by saying that officers first attempted to defuse the standoff with line staff and crisis negotiators. Then, when the situation escalated, they needed to secure the prison, escort visitors and volunteers out of the building, count all 1,138 prisoners in the facility, mobilize special operations units from across the state, gather intelligence about what weapons the prisoners had, and prepare a team to enter in case violence broke out.
“No inmates or staff were seriously injured while restoring order to the institution,” said Christopher Fallon, a spokesman for the Department of Correction. “This is a validation of our approach to the situation and a testament to the professionalism of the responding officers.”
Bennett did not say if an underlying grievance might have sparked the riot. Walker said she has been unable to get answers because the prison was on lockdown and lawyers were unable to enter. The president of the correctional officers union did not respond to messages.
The melee began about 3:50 p.m. with a fistfight between two prisoners who are both high-ranking gang members, officials said.
Officers restrained one prisoner and ordered others on the hall back into their cells, following a protocol designed to ensure that small fights do not erupt into larger brawls between warring gangs, Bennett said. But the other prisoners refused to reenter their cells, he said, and the officers decided to leave the unit.
“They didn’t want to engage in violence,” Bennett said. “They tried to negotiate to get the prisoners to go back in the cells. When it was apparent the prisoners were not going back into the cells, the COs backed out of the unit to make sure no one got hurt.”
Having seized control of the unit, the prisoners trashed the hall with clothes and food, ripped out shower heads and ceiling tiles, and stormed the guards’ station, officials said. Video released by state officials Tuesday shows prisoners spraying a fire extinguisher, smashing computers on the floor, and bashing cellblock doors with a metal pipe. The white T-shirts wrapped around their faces were apparently intended to protect them from pepper spray, officials said.
After summoning State Police, correctional officers “waited and they waited until they were ready,” Bennett said. Around 7 p.m., he said, the officers used pepper spray to bring the riot to an end. State officials would not disclose how the spray was deployed.
Officials said some of the prisoners may face criminal charges or disciplinary sanctions. Bennett declined to say if Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots star serving a life sentence for murder at Souza-Baranowski, was involved in the melee.
Governor Charlie Baker expressed relief Tuesday that the rampage had ended without bloodshed.
“You can always replace damaged furniture and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s much harder to deal with situations and circumstances where someone gets hurt.”
He commended the guards for “maintaining their cool, following their protocol, and doing the things they did to make sure nobody got hurt.”
Walker said fistfights break out almost every day at Souza-Baranowski, but uprisings like this are rare. And when they do erupt, she said, officers do not usually let them continue for three hours.
“This is an aberration, and it smacks of concern about management,” she said. “The officers leaving might have been protocol, but leaving prisoners in there for three hours?”
In 2009, guards at Souza-Baranowski used tear gas to quickly quell a riot involving seven prisoners who tore off sprinkler heads and smashed the computer terminal that controls the prison doors, the Boston Herald reported at the time.
In 2001, another riot broke out when an inmate threw a food tray at an officer at the prison.
Inmates responded by biting, hitting, and kicking officers, injuring seven. Fifteen prisoners were transferred to other prisons, and eight were later charged with attacking the superintendent and 10 officers.
In past decades, larger and more violent revolts were more commonplace in Massachusetts’ prisons.
In 1955, four convicts at the state prison in Charlestown held five guards and six prisoners hostage for 85 hours. The captors surrendered only after a citizens’ committee promised to improve conditions in the state penal system.
In 1965, 320 inmates rampaged through the corridors of the state prison in Walpole after a power failure plunged the facility into darkness. Guards eventually drove the prisoners back into their cells with tear gas. The following year, four guards at the prison were stabbed in a riot involving 100 inmates.
Monday’s uprising came as state legislators mull a variety of proposals to overhaul the criminal justice system in Massachusetts. The solitary confinement system used to punish inmates at Souza-Baranowski and other prisons is one area potentially targeted for reform. Lawmakers say they may also adjust laws on bail, mandatory minimum sentences, parole eligibility, and community supervision. But there is also reluctance among some lawmakers who worry about being seen as soft on crime.