SHIRLEY — State lawmakers who led an unannounced inspection of a Massachusetts maximum-security prison Sunday said they were shaken by the conditions they found at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, where they met with inmates who have alleged abuse at the hands of correctional officers following an attack on guards last month.
The visit came two days after several inmates at the prison alleged in a lawsuit that correctional officers have violated their right to counsel by limiting or blocking access to their attorneys and confiscating critical court paperwork, all in retribution for the attack, according to the court complaint.
On Jan. 10, the state Department of Correction reported that a correctional officer was surrounded and attacked by a group of inmates in a north-side section of the prison; two other officers were also injured in the incident. Six inmates were removed from the unit as a result, the DOC has said.
Five state lawmakers, including Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, collectively spoke to about 15 prisoners Sunday over the course of a six-hour visit.
Department of Correction officials told lawmakers they were concerned that more prisoners were involved in the attack, and there could be more assaults against correctional officers, Eldridge said in an interview at a nearby coffee shop after the visit.
“If you take a whole prison, and collectively punish everyone, isn’t that going to increase the tension [among] prisoners who had nothing to do with the attack?” Eldridge said. “There really needs to be more programming, and access to family and phone calls. And that’s my view about how you reduce the tension.”
The lawsuit, which was filed late Friday in Suffolk Superior Court, seeks a jury trial and asks for a preliminary injunction ordering the prison to permit prisoners to keep legal paperwork in their cells; that they be given sufficient time outside their cells during business hours to make attorney phone calls; and have contact visits with their lawyers.
Three of the plaintiffs in the suit are inmates at the prison — Carl Larocque, Robert Silva-Prentice, and Tamik Kirkland — who are joined by the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“The bottom line of our complaint is, you may not deny people access to their attorneys,” said attorney Rebecca Jacobstein, director of strategic litigation for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, in an interview. “When their rights are being violated, that is when they need their attorneys the most. And they were cut off.”
The lawsuit names the defendants as Thomas Turco, the secretary of the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security; Carol Mici, commissioner of the Department of Correction; and Stephen Kenneway, the superintendent of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.
In a statement to the Globe Sunday night, the Department of Correction said it has not yet received the lawsuit, and the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
“We will, however, vigorously defend all actions and decisions necessary to maintain the safety of staff, inmates, and visitors at the Commonwealth’s only maximum-security prison,” said the statement.
The department said operations at the prison are returning to normal following serious assaults on correctional officers.
“While some privileges have been restricted and some inmates were moved as staff searched the maximum-security facility for weapons and other contraband, this process was necessary to prevent further violence," the statement said. "Every effort was made to provide attorneys with reasonable access to their clients as soon as safety and security were restored.”
Attorneys have been permitted to visit their clients, according to the statement, and inmates have been given increasing access to showers, phone calls, e-mails, and recreation following the search.
The DOC follows use-of-force protocols; staff misconduct can be reported through multiple channels; and every report is investigated thoroughly, the statement said.
The lawsuit also alleges physical mistreatment of inmates and described prisoners being bitten by dogs, hit with stun guns, handcuffed, and struck with fists, stripped of clothing, and relocated to other cells with little explanation.
“The conditions at SBCC are frightening and unlawful,” the plaintiffs said in a memo filed with the court complaint. “There is an urgent need for inmates to reach out to their attorneys for help. But SBCC has made that impossible.”
None of the plaintiffs have been charged or faced discipline in the Jan. 10 attack on the three officers, according to the lawsuit. Inmates involved in the attack were moved from the prison after the incident, the lawsuit said.
But for about 17 days following the attack, all attorney visits were prohibited at the prison, the lawsuit said. Prisoners in the north-side unit continue to be denied full access to their lawyers, writing material, or access to mail, the complaint said.
Currently, prisoners have only 15 minutes out of their cells each day to call their attorneys, and “there is no guarantee that this time is during business hours, and has to be weighed against other basic needs, such as showering,” the memo said.
When they were allowed attorney visits, those meetings were described as non-contact — where inmates are separated from attorneys with a partition, can’t exchange paperwork, and speak in an area where conversations can be overheard — making those discussions largely unproductive.
“When north-side inmates inquired about the basis for this collective punishment, correctional officers responded that it was retribution for the assault on correctional officers on January 10, 2020,” said the complaint.
“As one officer put it, ‘If you put hands on an officer, you will all pay,’ ” it said.
The complaint names 11 attorneys, including Jacobstein, who reported being turned away from the prison or facing other difficulties meeting with inmates.
In a phone interview, attorney Kathryn Ohren, who represents Silva-Prentice, said that when they were able to meet for a non-contact visit on Jan. 29, they were separated by thick, tinted Plexiglas. To speak to one another, they had to press their ears and faces to a metal grate in the middle.
Normally in the prison, they met in a well-lit private room with a table, she said.
Some prisoners were stripped of clothing until recently being issued gray jumpsuits, the complaint said.
In the complaint, Silva-Prentice reported that 10 to 12 officers rushed into his cell, and in unprovoked attacks, repeatedly used stun guns on him and his cellmate, and beat them. Officials also took away their legal paperwork and denied them phone calls to their lawyers, the complaint said.
Ohren said Silva-Prentice has since been given back his clothing and hygiene items, but still doesn’t have his other property, including a transcript of his legal proceedings that he must read in order to participate in his appeal.
She called the randomness of the attack on him “terror.”
“He is by no means the only one. The whole point was the randomness. You don’t know who, you don’t know what,” Ohren said. “That’s the terror. That’s exactly why they’re so alarmed.”