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Lack of effective prison oversight results in hidden cruelty. It’s time to fix this

The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in LancasterDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time, right? Hardly anybody besides their friends and families cares what happens to the people who live behind prison walls. That’s how those who run our correction institutions get away with appalling brutality, word of which almost never sees the light of day.

But even hardened throw-away-the-key types might be shocked by video from the afternoon of Jan. 22, 2020, at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Obtained by the Globe Spotlight team, the video shows dogs barking wildly as correctional officers forcibly extracted two men in their underwear from a cell in the aftermath of a violent Jan. 10 attack on officers — an attack in which neither of them participated. Blood-curdling screams echo through the unit as one of the dogs lunges at a handcuffed Dionisio Paulino the instant he’s led out of his cell, tearing gashes in his thigh. Other inmates pound their doors in futile protest as Paulino is dragged away, bloody and naked from the waist down.

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In the aftermath of the horrific incident, at least four officers claimed the dog lunged because the inmate had broken free of his escort. But that claim was proved false by the footage, and by the testimony of officers escorting Paulino, the Globe analysis found. Still, no officer was punished for the attack. Or for lying.

This was just one of 118 allegations of excessive force lodged by men incarcerated at Souza during a six-week crackdown that started that January. They accused correctional officers of beating them, shocking them with tasers, threatening them with dogs, and more. In a statement, the Department of Correction said all personnel are expected to uphold the highest standards of respect and security, that it takes all allegations of misconduct seriously. The Globe reviewed 50 of the grievances filed last year; the prisoners won none of them.

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“This was a retaliatory and violent response ... that clearly should have been handled differently,” said Elizabeth Matos, head of Prisoners’ Legal Services, which is preparing a class-action lawsuit in response to the allegations. “Nobody cared enough to hold them accountable on the state level, so here we are.”

This is what you get when there is no effective oversight of a prison system — where the governor trusts those who oversee those accused of brutality to investigate themselves. For heaven’s sake, the man in charge of Souza during this crackdown, Steven Kenneway, toured the infamous torture factory that was Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq during his time in the military and testified that he “thought it was well-run.”

This is what you get when almost nobody can penetrate the veil of secrecy that surrounds prisons: where public records requests are ignored or denied, citing privacy or public safety. It shouldn’t take filing a lawsuit to get the Department of Correction to turn over public records, but that’s exactly what the Globe had to do to get them. It shouldn’t take a lucky break, or even a herculean effort, to see the footage and hear the voices of those involved in these incidents.

Officials even thumb their noses at the legislators who determine their funding, and who have enacted reforms on which correction officials continue to drag their feet. After state Senator Jamie Eldridge visited the prison after the Jan. 10 assaults and was critical of DOC, then public safety commissioner Thomas Turco instructed the DOC commissioner to ignore the senator “from here on out.”

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“What is so frustrating is there are good-faith efforts by sincere public officials to create more transparency,” said the Acton Democrat. “But more often than not, they are getting batted down by, in my opinion, senior political advisers to Governor [Charlie] Baker.”

It’s not just Baker, though. No governor in decades has been interested in real reform when it comes to prisons in this state, said Leslie Walker, an attorney who has spent a long career advocating on behalf of inmates.

“We’ve had decades now of administrators and secretaries and commissioners who hate the people they are charged with guarding behind the walls,” she said.

They get away with it because a lot of other people hate those in prison, too. Paulino is serving a long sentence for involuntary manslaughter for shooting a young man in 2011, when he was 18. Some will surely say he deserves everything he gets, however brutal.

But we are supposed to have agreed on certain things in this country: That all people are human beings, and that no human being should be subjected to deliberate, state-sponsored cruelty, no matter what they’ve done. For most serious crimes, we deprive people of their liberty. The Constitution and international law are quite plain that that is punishment enough.

Maybe that doesn’t move you, but perhaps this will: Most of the 6,000-plus people currently locked in this state’s prisons will get out at some point. They will be moving back to live in neighborhoods across the Commonwealth. People who are brutalized in prison are more likely to emerge angry, broken, unable to reconstruct their lives, and dangerous. That makes everybody less safe.

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It’s time to fix this, at long last. Some brave legislators are pushing new measures to make the DOC more accountable, even though they know there are no votes in prison reform. They would improve transparency and extend policing reforms to correctional officers; they would create clear, uniform standards on the use of force — rules enforced by an independent oversight board.

It will happen only if enough elected officials get behind it, however. And that will happen only if enough voters demand it.

Read the Spotlight report. Take a look at that brutal video. This is being done in our names, using our tax dollars. And every effort is being made to hide this cruelty from us.

Are you OK with that?


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.