The story of “The taking of Cell 15″ at Souza-Baranowski, the state’s maximum security prison, isn’t just about its two occupants on that January day, it’s about a prison system that prefers gag orders to transparency, where those with a badge and a taser get to make the rules and truth remains elusive.
Even as the state and its localities strive to bring policing into the 21st century, the Massachusetts correctional system is stuck in another age. Prison guards have tough, dangerous jobs. But abuses do happen, and when they do, prison inmates can’t take to the streets to demand justice. All they can do is file internal grievances or occasionally get word to a lawyer.
Their options are few, their influence virtually nonexistent. It’s easy to forget those behind bars, and so they are at the mercy of a closed system that protects its own. And that has to change. It’s time to reimagine corrections just as this state has begun to reimagine policing, and to establish a safer environment for both inmates and officers.
The painful story of Dionisio Paulino and Robert Silva-Prentice, the occupants of Cell 15 and the subject of the most recent Globe Spotlight story, shows why.
Back on Jan. 10, 2020, a melee broke out in the N1 section of the prison in which four correction officers were hurt. Its origins and whether it was spontaneous or planned remain shrouded in the usual Department of Correction murkiness. But the prisoners deemed responsible were removed from the facility shortly thereafter.
What followed was a prison-wide lockdown and a shakedown and search for contraband and weapons. What inmates say followed was a systemic collective punishment by correction officers of anyone unfortunate enough to be in a prison jumpsuit.
Paulino, then 26, and Silva-Prentice, then 22, had only just been moved into Cell 15 the day after tactical DOC teams were brought in to conduct the shakedown. The cell was in a corner — a location out of range of cameras on the unit. Both had already been stripped down to their underwear prior to the move and handcuffed. Both men say they were injured when forcibly removed from that cell. Paulino would have to have stitches to close gashes made by one of the patrol dogs used by the tactical team.
From Jan. 10 to Mar. 1, 2020, Souza-Baranowski inmates filed 118 complaints of use of excessive force, according to Prisoners’ Legal Services. During that same time in 2019 there were four complaints; this year, six.
The use of the tactical team, a special DOC unit of officers from around the prison system, was approved at the highest levels of the DOC including then Secretary of Public Safety Thomas Turco. A spokeswoman for Governor Charlie Baker declined to say if the governor was briefed on the operation ahead of time.
By February, even as word was getting out about allegations of retaliatory use of force by officers, Baker told WBUR, “I have a lot of faith in the department and in the actions it’s taken to ensure that inmates and correctional officers at Souza are safe.”
And here another set of numbers is instructive. During that period, the first three months of 2020, 638 grievances were filed by Souza-Baranowski prisoners over conditions or treatment. Only 58 went to the department’s internal affairs unit for further investigation; five resulted in rulings favorable to prisoners.
It’s what happens when DOC is judge and jury.
And DOC’s response to allegations of excessive force and filing false reports made in court filings by the lawyer for the two men in Cell 15, Patty DeJuneas? DOC sought a gag order, DeJuneas told the Globe, that would prevent her from going public with evidence in the case.
The events that followed the Jan. 10 incident may have been extreme but not a total aberration. The Justice Department’s November 2020 report on the treatment of prisoners in the throes of mental health crises at the same facility found instances of such cruelty that they could well constitute violations of the Constitution’s 8th Amendment guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment. Remediating the situation remains the subject of on-going negotiations between Justice and corrections officials.
The Justice Department has opened a second investigation, the Globe has confirmed — this one into the early 2020 abuse allegations at Souza.
But just as police departments could not be left to reform from within, so, too, the state’s correction department won’t reform by itself — even with Justice Department investigators looking over its shoulders.
State lawmakers have been continually frustrated at DOC’s ability to find work-arounds to reforms already passed — like the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act, especially its effort to curtail the use of solitary confinement.
“I think they [the Baker administration] were looking at the criminal justice law as advisory,” said Representative Michael Day, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, in an interview. “No, it’s a law. We pass laws and we want to make sure they’re properly implemented.”
So perhaps it’s time for Criminal Justice Reform: Part 2.
An effort to establish use of force limits in corrections and create an independent body with the power to investigate and adjudicate complaints of correction officer misconduct was relegated to a study commission in the police reform bill. To the best of anyone’s knowledge the commission seems not to exist — its chair never appointed because ethics rules prohibit the chief of the Supreme Judicial Court, who was assigned the task in the bill, from fulfilling it.
But the problems at DOC can’t wait for some unwieldy commission to tell lawmakers what they know in their hearts and minds already. When every prisoner — and guard — knows there are “blind spots” in a unit, it’s time to consider body worn cameras for corrections officers. When one prison racks ups 638 complaints in three months, it should not be in the business of policing itself.
The state prison system cries out for independent oversight and a credible system for investigating complaints and weeding out bad officers.
That’s the real lesson of “The Taking of Cell 15” — and it merits a serious response on Beacon Hill.
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