Inmates at the state’s maximum security prison in Shirley say they have endured unprovoked beatings at the hands of officers dressed in tactical gear, been given half-portions for meals, and allowed little to no contact with attorneys amid a lockdown since correctional officers were attacked at the facility three weeks ago, according to relatives and advocates.
The fallout from the Jan. 10 incident at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, where a group of inmates assaulted three correctional officers, has been widespread and violent, advocates say, including allegations of retaliatory acts against inmates who were not involved in the initial attack.
A handful of prisoners have been hospitalized, according to Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. She said the decades-old advocacy group has interviewed roughly three dozen inmates, many of whom have reported being beaten and shocked with a Taser by officers without provocation and confined to their cells for all but 15 minutes a day without books or television, leaving some to go without showering for as many as five days at a time.
“There’s a disciplinary process. You don’t just go in and beat people up, or try to control a situation by beating people into submission,” Matos said, adding that she’s relayed the allegations to Department of Correction officials. “It seems that we’re not on the same page in terms of what we think is going on inside. People want to believe that things are happening by the book. But from what we’re hearing, it’s very hard to believe that. ”
Department officials said they cannot discuss specific inmates’ experiences, but said the prison is “returning to normal operations” following a lockdown and that inmates are getting “increasing access" to showers, phone calls, e-mail use, and recreational activities.
Officials said the lockdown allowed them to conduct searches for any drugs, weapons, or “any contraband,” though they did not say if they discovered any.
“A methodical search protocol and other temporary changes at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center have been undertaken to ensure the safety of staff, inmates, and the public, which remain DOC’s primary concern in the aftermath of serious assaults on correctional officers," spokesman Jason Dobson said in a statement. "Any use of force under these circumstances is governed by DOC policy, and any alleged violations are thoroughly investigated.”
State Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary and represents Shirley, said his office has received roughly 30 calls or e-mails with complaints about conditions inside the prison since the Jan. 10 attack. Usually following a high-profile incident, “it’s five or six,” he said.
Eldridge said inmates or their relatives have alleged prisoners are being denied access to food or to speak to their attorneys.
“Just a real sense of retaliation at alarming rates since the attack,” Eldridge said. He had been slated to visit the prison on Monday, but he said Department of Correction officials canceled that visit on Wednesday, citing scheduling conflicts.
State Representative Liz Miranda, a Dorchester Democrat whose brother is incarcerated at the prison, said officials can’t ignore “the public safety concerns of our public servants. However, I will not ignore the allegations of brutality shared by families within my community.”
Victoria Kelleher, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Friday she and the Committee for Public Counsel Services have been collecting reports from attorneys who were denied access to the prison for more than two weeks or were told their clients’ legal paperwork had been confiscated by officers.
She said attorneys were again allowed access late last week but on a restricted basis.
“I have never seen a situation where they have barred lawyers over a period of time,” Kelleher said. “We’re now getting these reports of human rights abuses. We don’t think it’s coincidental that lawyers were not permitted [inside then].”
Department of Correction officials said Friday that general visits remain suspended “until further notice” but attorneys are being permitted inside.
Kristin Stewart, 33, told the Globe that her boyfriend, Andre Laventure — who is serving time in the prison for armed robbery and other charges, according to court records — has told her in recent phone calls that since the prison was put into lockdown, officers have raided cells and confiscated property.
She said that Laventure told her he’s been shocked with a Taser and “beaten up,” and said he’s been served half-portions for meals.
“One incident happened at 3 [o’clock] in the morning,” she said, recounting her boyfriend’s allegation. “They came in and raided everybody and took everybody out of their cells in handcuffs, put them on their knees, and had them stay there for at least three hours on their knees. If they tried to sit down on their butt or tried to move, their face would get slammed into the wall.”
Another targeted inmate was Derrick Washington, according to his partner, Rachel Corey.
She said Washington, who is serving a life sentence for murder, was told on Jan. 21 that he’d be receiving a cellmate, even though he’s not supposed to be double bunked with anyone. Washington said that when he indicated he’d refuse, correctional officers beat him to the point of unconsciousness, and he was taken to an outside hospital.
He’s since been returned to the prison, Corey said. “They’ve proven again and again that their employees are not accountable,” Corey said.
The alleged retaliation by guards followed a Jan. 10 melee at the prison in which a group of inmates surrounded and severely assaulted a correctional officer, according to DOC officials. That officer was taken to an area hospital, as were two officers who responded to the attack.
The DOC said shortly after the Jan. 10 incident that six inmates had been “removed from the unit” and that the matter was referred to Worcester county prosecutors. No criminal charges have been announced to date.
At the time of the attack, the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, which represents guards at the prison, lamented the 2018 passage of a sweeping criminal justice law, saying it has “allowed inmates to manipulate the system, and engage in violent action, increased gang activity, intimidation and assaults on officers and other inmates.”
Violence has engulfed the prison before.
In January 2017, more than 40 inmates rioted at the facility and destroyed furniture and computers, lit a small fire, and smashed sprinkler heads, which sent water spraying into the housing unit. The incident was touched off by inmates returning from the gym who refused to reenter their cells because they wanted to shower, prison officials said at the time.
The DOC said its investigators determined that 32 prisoners took part in the destruction of property.
About three months after the riot, former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez, who was serving a life sentence at the prison, was found hanged in his cell.
Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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