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Prisons chief said order halting guards’ discipline was news to her. E-mails say otherwise

Commissioner abandoned and disowned the policy amid backlash

The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley.
The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley.Ryan, David L. Globe Staff

It was a trial balloon that crashed almost immediately. Department of Correction officials had announced internally on March 17 that they would lift the suspensions of all prison guards and halt employee discipline due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Within hours, word spread publicly, and prisoner advocates complained that the directive could embolden abusive guards who knew they wouldn’t be punished.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins called the policy “an invitation to harm, punish, and violate prisoners.”

So the correction commissioner, Carol A. Mici, hastily rescinded the policy, blaming it on a subordinate who had issued an “unauthorized memo” that “was drafted and distributed without my knowledge.” She suspended the subordinate, Deputy Commissioner of Career & Professional Development Michael G. Grant Sr., for an unknown length of time.

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Now, e-mails obtained by the Globe show Mici was in the loop as the policy was hatched. She not only received multiple messages about suspending employee discipline, but, in one e-mail, Grant said she selected him to handle the issue from the outset.

Mici, who makes $162,000 a year to oversee the state’s 16 correctional facilities and 8,000 inmates, declined to speak to the Globe. Instead, a spokesman issued a statement: “Commissioner Mici led urgent, Department-wide COVID-19 preparations and quickly rescinded this unauthorized memo that did not reflect DOC policy.”

The spokesman noted that Grant had sent an e-mail fully outlining the new policy to Mici and other leaders just one minute before sending the formal memo announcing the action. The spokesman also noted that the policy was rescinded before it ever took effect.

The e-mails, obtained by the Globe through a public records request, portray a hastily designed policy that began as a request from the union representing prison guards. And top Department of Correction officials were preparing to defend it publicly until the backlash grew too intense.

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The e-mails show that, after the plan became public, the department’s public relations office wrote up talking points to defend it. They called the suspension of disciplinary actions “a decision that was not taken lightly” and “one that will help the agency and its staff as we ensure core functions are able to continue and key services are able to be provided during the COVID‐19 outbreak.”

But the talking points were never used as the backlash quickly mounted.

The controversy began with an e-mail from the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union on the morning of March 17. Union vice president Ted Slattery asked Mici, Grant, and other department leaders that certain disciplinary hearings be “suspended until further notice” because of the pandemic. Slattery was not specific as to why the pandemic would require disciplinary actions to be suspended, but he added that “we feel that this measure will greatly benefit the health and well-being of all parties involved.”

It’s unclear how many guards would have seen their suspensions reversed, but the request came on the heels of allegations of excessive force. Early this year, the department was sued over allegations its officers had used excessive force on inmates at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley. Their actions were allegedly reprisal for an attack by inmates that injured several guards.

Leaders of the union, which represents about 4,000 prison workers, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Grant responded to the union’s e-mail request about an hour later, writing: “I’ll call you by noon. Commissioner has designated this to my discretion.”

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Grant has had controversial dealings with the prison guards union in the past. In 2004, Grant was removed from his job running MCI-Concord after it was revealed he had moved the pedophile priest John Geoghan to another facility, where he was beaten and strangled to death by an inmate. The union had urged the transfer despite the recommendation of a prison classification board that wanted the frail 68-year-old kept in Concord.

Grant, through a department spokesman, declined to speak with the Globe.

At 12:36 p.m. on March 17, Grant e-mailed Mici and other department leaders to let them know he was about to announce the freeze on employee discipline.

“Just a heads up that I am putting out a memo to [the Extended Leadership Team] that effective immediately all staff disciplinary proceeding[s] will be placed on a moratorium until further notice,” the e-mail said. “This will also include a moratorium on all staff suspensions. Any incidents of an egregious nature that require immediate action will be handled on a case by case basis.”

The order surfaced publicly later that day, when union officials posted it on their website.

By the next morning, concerns from outside began rolling in. The department’s legislative affairs director e=mailed Grant: “The Black and Latino Caucus reached out regarding the memo. Can you provide some background information as to why this policy was implemented?” By afternoon, Rollins tweeted, a reporter e-mailed questions to Grant, and another e-mailed an agency spokesman. The union removed the memo from its website.

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Governor Charlie Baker was scheduled to hold a press conference on the pandemic at 3 p.m. About 15 minutes prior, a department spokesman sent an e-mail headlined “For the Govs press conference” and featuring a bulleted list of taking points, to a spokesman at Baker’s public safety Cabinet.

That e-mail defended the change. “The Department’s decision to place a moratorium on proceedings for new staff discipline and suspensions is a decision that was not taken lightly,” the e-mail said, adding, “This Moratorium does not change any current discipline that is being served.”

At the press conference, Baker fielded a question about the directive. “On that one in particular, I’ll have to get back to you,” the governor said.

Soon after, the public safety spokesman e-mailed the office’s head, Secretary Thomas Turco, and Undersecretary for Criminal Justice Andrew Peck a copy of a new internal order from Mici to replace Grant’s directive. The spokesman wrote: “Below is a draft based on our most recent conversations. Please let me know what you think ASAP. We’ll need to get it to DOC and Gov’s press for final review, and quickly if we’re to contain this to one news cycle.” Peck replied “I like it!” and Turco: “Thank you.”

The public safety spokesman also forwarded a copy of Mici’s order to the Department of Correction spokesman, “See what you and the Commissioner think.”

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The spokesman replied: “The Commissioner wants to share your version internally and send the media the following.” Below that was a much different bulleted list than what had been exchanged earlier. It said Grant’s memo had been distributed without Mici’s knowledge and that, while some proceedings might be delayed due to COVID-19 impacts, staff discipline was not being halted.

Ultimately, Mici’s memo was shared with the media, but the bulleted list was kept under wraps.

Baker, through a spokesman, declined to comment, while a spokesman for Turco did not respond to questions.

Lisa Tuite of the Globe staff contributed to this report.