Correction authorities should ensure that prison shakedowns and major reorganizations are video recorded, Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday, in his first public comments about a weekend Globe Spotlight story on alleged abuses at the state’s maximum security prison during and shortly after a lockdown in early 2020.
”The standard rule of thumb at this point is -- if they do any kind of a sweep like that in the future, they need to do that with cameras on,” Baker said on Boston Public Radio, the WGBH program hosted by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. “They should be filming that stuff.”
The Spotlight story, “The Taking of Cell 15,” investigated a spike of excessive force complaints by prisoners at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center that occurred after four correction officers were hurt in an assault by about 20 prisoners in the facility’s N1 unit on Jan. 10, 2020. The story also raised questions about why some officers’ use of force inside a cell were not videotaped.
Men incarcerated at Souza allege that - even after prisoners allegedly involved in that melee were moved outside that prison - authorities orchestrated a wave of violent retaliation and collective punishment on Souza prisoners not involved in that attack. Excessive force allegations in the weeks after the Jan. 10 assault rose nearly 30 times over the same time period the year before.
The Spotlight story focused on complaints and injuries of two Souza prisoners, Dionisio Paulino and Robert Silva-Prentice, who say they were beaten by a Department of Correction tactical team on Jan. 22, 2020, in Cell 15 of the facility’s P2 unit. Officers have maintained that the prisoners resisted, fought with the tactical team, and the team used force to subdue them. The encounter inside the cell was not video recorded.
Prison security video shows Paulino being mauled by a DOC patrol dog outside the cell while handcuffed and under escort. Officers later claimed Paulino antagonized the dog by trying to kick it, which Paulino denies. Reports from at least four officers who witnessed the events contained false allegations that Paulino broke free of the escort officers.
Neither prisoner from Cell 15 was involved in the Jan. 10 melee.
DOC policy calls for cell extractions and forced cell entries to be videotaped, according to a copy of the policy reviewed by the Globe. The DOC has not explained why the events inside Cell 15 were not recorded. Video recording is considered best practice in the industry because it provides a record of what happened, potentially protecting prisoners from unprovoked violence and officers from unfounded claims of abuse.
Baker said he and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito visited injured correction officers after the Jan. 10 attack. “Honestly, they’re lucky to be alive,” Baker said.
The roughly 20 men who allegedly participated in that assault were transferred out of Souza to other prisons within a few days, the prison’s former superintendent said in a court hearing last year. After the alleged perpetrators were gone, prison officials reorganized and searched the facility. Baker said the search turned up homemade weapons and other contraband.
The governor did not directly answer a question about whether the dramatic spike in abuse allegations at Souza warranted an independent investigation, as has been requested by prisoners’ advocates, and suggested pending litigation over the allegations will sort out the facts.
”There are a lot of channels through which grievances in the prison system can be addressed,” Baker said. “Some of which are done by DOC through its own investigative activities and some of them which are done through lawsuits and other legal action. There’s tremendous amount of traffic back and forth between the DOC correctional facility and the attorneys who represent the folks who are there.
”And in this particular case, this one is involved in a series of legal challenges. And because of that I can’t comment further on it because of the pending proceedings,” said the governor.
Civil litigation related to the abuse allegations is underway and more is coming. Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, a nonprofit that aids and advocates for incarcerated people, is drafting a federal excessive force lawsuit, representing clients at Souza. PLS will allege that prison authorities “authorized and encouraged” retributory violence against incarcerated men, the agency has said. DOC regulations say force is never to be used as a punishment.
The Globe has confirmed that the US Department of Justice last year opened an investigation into allegations of prisoner abuse at Souza in early 2020. Patty DeJuneas, a lawyer who represents Paulino and Silva-Prentice, told the Globe that DOJ investigators this past May asked her to provide cellblock security video related to Paulino’s removal from Cell 15.