Sergeant Mark O’Reilly is no ordinary correction officer. A 30-year veteran of the state prison system, he has for years held the position of K9 commander. He is responsible for training dogs and handlers for the department and other law enforcement agencies. He has been called as an expert witness to testify about the proper use of dogs by law enforcement.
And twice within two weeks last year he was accused of excessive force, including a mauling of a prisoner by a dog he was handling.
He may have been suspended for one of the alleged offenses; it is hard to know. The Department of Correction has habitually erected a stout wall between what happens inside its institutions and what the public learns.
O’Reilly remains the K9 commander for the system, according to a DOC spokesman.
Records obtained by the Globe from the DOC’s Internal Affairs Unit say that O’Reilly was seen on a prison security video appearing to kick a prone and restrained prisoner on Jan. 10, 2020, as O’Reilly’s patrol dog barked nearby, during a lockdown at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, a maximum-security institution.
Heavily redacted state documents refer to a “suspension letter” for O’Reilly in this case involving a prisoner named Isaias Torres-Vega, but the DOC would not confirm if he served a suspension.
O’Reilly had already been accused of — and sued in federal court — for another allegation of excessive force during the same extended lockdown in January 2020. In that case, detailed in a Globe Spotlight Team report this summer, O’Reilly was handling a patrol dog that attacked a prisoner, Dionisio Paulino, on Jan. 22, 2020. O’Reilly is among more than 30 defendants named in a lawsuit by Paulino and another prisoner, Robert Silva-Prentice, who allege they were beaten by authorities in misplaced retribution for an assault on officers by other incarcerated men. The suit is in its early stages.
O’Reilly declined to comment when reached by telephone.
The DOC said in a statement that it does not discuss personnel issues, but insisted that “any matters that needed to be addressed as a result of the investigation were addressed.”
The agency’s reticence to answer questions about the alleged kicking incident “shows the Department of Correction’s willingness to protect their own at any cost and the callous and deliberate disregard for the safety of the men and women they’re required to protect,” said Patty DeJuneas, a Boston lawyer spearheading the Paulino and Silva-Prentice lawsuit.
DOC investigators came across the video images of O’Reilly’s alleged kicking of a bound Torres-Vega while looking into a complaint the then-Souza prisoner filed, alleging he was beaten in his cell and then roughed up again in a stairwell in the hours after more than a dozen prisoners engaged Souza staff in a wild brawl on Jan. 10, 2020, DOC documents say.
“I always thought I was going to get killed or beat up by somebody that woke up pissed off because he’s doing life,” said Torres-Vega, 30, in a Globe interview after his release this summer. “That’s what I was scared of. I wasn’t scared of the system that is supposed to serve and protect, being the ones who come in and abuse you.”
Torres-Vega’s account to the Globe is one of the most intimate to date about what happened during a lockdown at Souza in early 2020, following the Jan. 10 assault on officers. In the six weeks following the assault, Souza prisoners lodged at least 118 allegations of excessive force, nearly 30 times the number over the same period in 2019, according to Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, a nonprofit advocate for incarcerated people.
In the spring of 2020, the DOC’s Internal Affairs Unit investigated Torres-Vega’s allegations. The Globe has attempted to piece together what happened through heavily redacted state documents acquired under the public records act — initially without the benefit of even knowing Torres-Vega’s name.
His name and commitment number are redacted throughout the documents released to the Globe, except in one apparent oversight, where his last name pops up. Having the surname enabled the Globe to cross-reference with news reports on criminal cases, and narrow down Torres-Vega as the person mentioned in the Internal Affairs report. The Globe acquired his DOC commitment number through another source, and used it to confirm that Torres-Vega was no longer in custody.
A Globe reporter reached Torres-Vega through his family in Western Massachusetts.
At the time of the assault on officers in early 2020, Torres-Vega was assigned to Cell 11 in Souza’s N1 unit. The atmosphere was extremely tense. He said prisoners had complained to prison officials that two correction officers had been harassing men on the unit and tempers were dangerously high.
At about 10:46 a.m. on Jan. 10, an argument between a prisoner and an officer on the unit exploded into violence. More than a dozen prisoners piled on officers, throwing punches in a violent free-for-all. Four officers were hurt. DOC documents say Torres-Vega was locked in his cell at the time and did not participate. The men allegedly responsible were quickly transferred to other prisons.
In the immediate aftermath of the assault, then-DOC Deputy Commissioner Paul Henderson ordered prisoners in the N1 unit removed from their cells, handcuffed, and escorted to a corridor, “where they would remain in a kneeling position until the assailants of the assault could be identified and to determine what happened,” according to the report on Torres-Vega’s allegations.
Advocates for prisoners’ rights have charged that forcing handcuffed men to kneel into a wall, allegedly for hours, was abusive. Henderson told Internal Affairs that the men were made to kneel, “To keep us safe and them safe . . . it wasn’t to put them in a harmful position that could hurt them. It wasn’t to punish them in any way,” the report states.
Torres-Vega said that hours after the melee, officers dressed in tactical armor began entering cells in the unit.
“They start moving inmates that had nothing to do with the whole brawl, but they’re not just moving them,” he said. “They go into cells and they’re beating people up. They’re not asking questions. It’s just going in there grabbing you up, hitting you, all that. So, I hear people screaming.”
He said he called to an officer outside his cell, “‘Why y’all beating people up?’
“The dude comes to my door and tells me, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re next.’ "
Torres-Vega said officers came to his door and ordered him and his cellmate to lie on the floor with their hands behind their backs. The prisoners responded that they wanted to “cuff up,” a routine procedure in which each man backs up to the cell door and positions his hands so that officers can apply handcuffs through the door trap, Torres-Vega said.
“I didn’t want to get on the ground because that’s not proper procedure,” he said. “You’re supposed to pull me out from the cell where the cameras can see.”
But with no option other than being hit by chemical rounds for refusing the order, the men complied, he said. He said the door opened, officers rushed in and “kicked my face into the ground — I swear I thought I lost my front teeth. My gums were numb. I couldn’t feel them. I’m just getting punched left and right.”
Torres-Vega was escorted out in handcuffs after about a minute, according to a DOC timeline.
The report says Torres-Vega began to resist the escort as the officers steered him toward a stairwell, by “planting/digging his feet on the ground.” Torres-Vega says he was not resisting; he said he did not understand that the officers wanted him to turn. Inside the stairwell, Torres-Vega “appears to continue to resist,” according to the report, and the officers took him down to the floor.
The report says O’Reilly positioned his patrol dog “within close proximity to what appears to be [Torres-Vega’s] upper torso.”
“O’Reilly appears to kick [Torres-Vega] in the area of his head,” the report states. O’Reilly then pulled the dog away.
In an incident report, O’Reilly said he saw Torres-Vega “struggling with Special Operations Division officers,” and brought his dog close. “Because of the close proximity and tight quarters, to avoid accidental K-9 contact, I instinctively used the bottom of my left foot on [Torres-Vega’s] head area to make distance.”
Internal Affairs investigators assigned to look into the incident reported, “After being advised of his rights, O’Reilly invoked his right to not proceed with questioning.”
The DOC so heavily redacted the Internal Affairs document that it is impossible to determine the results of the investigation. More than four pages of the investigator’s conclusions are entirely blacked out.
Torres-Vega was released this past summer, having served his time after pleading guilty to kidnapping and extortion charges in Springfield about six years ago, according to news reports. He said he is now working in construction, and taking care of his child and family.
State law says that prison authorities are to notify prosecutors of potential felonies at their institutions. The DOC routinely makes hundreds of these notifications a year. But Souza officials apparently did not notify the Worcester district attorney’s office about the alleged kicking incident involving Torres-Vega, according to documents the district attorney provided in response to a Globe public records request.
The DOC made about 218 notifications to Worcester district prosecutors last year, according to the documents, including at least 10 for prisoners accused of kicking someone.