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editorial

Next prison commissioner must embrace reform, independent oversight

Governor Patrick has forced the resignation of Luis Spencer, the well-liked but ineffectual commissioner of the state Department of Correction. But even a replacement with greater managerial and analytical skills would be hard pressed to run a prison system that has been plagued by a lack of independent oversight and erratic training of correction officers.

Spencer pushed for improvements in prisoner classification, reentry, and other operations. But he failed to grasp the depth of the problems at Bridgewater State Hospital, a DOC facility for both mentally ill prisoners and noncriminal, violent mental patients. Spencer dragged his feet while investigating the alleged physical abuse of a Bridgewater patient in late May. It was foolhardy behavior for a commissioner who was already under a harsh spotlight for failing to act on an internal report that pointed to misconduct on the part of three guards associated with the death of Bridgewater patient Joshua Messier.

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A talented correction commissioner is not likely to come to work for a governor who has only a few months remaining in his term. For now, the system is in the competent hands of interim commissioner Thomas Dickhaut. But it will fall to the next governor to find a commissioner capable of raising the overall performance level of DOC staffers, expanding rehabilitation programs for 11,000 inmates, and addressing the specific needs of the approximately one-fourth of the prison population suffering from serious mental illnesses.

The Massachusetts prison system is an outlier. In recent years, the DOC has struggled with a suicide rate four times the national prison average. Before recent efforts to retrain correction officers at Bridgewater, inmates were 200 times more likely to be placed in restraints or isolation than at a well-run mental health facility serving a similarly challenging population in Connecticut. And when things do change for the better, it is often a result of news reports and lawsuits, not internally driven policies.

The next governor should work with the Legislature to ensure independent oversight of the DOC, whether in the form of a permanent board or an inspector general. The independent party could monitor the department’s budget, evaluate medical care of inmates, assess training programs, and analyze the general condition of prison buildings. But an independent authority’s greatest role would be to assure the public that all reports of prisoner abuse are investigated fairly and thoroughly.

The next commissioner needs to be secure enough to accept independent oversight. The right candidate would also accept that secure units in the state’s mental health department are a better place than prisons to house noncriminal, violent mental patients.

Spencer’s departure doesn’t solve the prison system’s problems. But it’s a good reminder that a job this tough requires a top-notch leader.

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