When brutality happens not on a city street but behind prison walls, there’s no citizen with a cellphone to record the abuse of authority, and often no bystander to bear witness to the truth.
There’s only the black hole of official silence, where any punishment for acts of brutality by prison guards remains cloaked in layers of bureaucracy and redacted reports.
Case in point: the actions and conduct of Sergeant Mark O’Reilly, K9 commander for the state’s prison system, on a January day in 2020 when O’Reilly and his patrol dog were on duty during a lockdown at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts.
The lockdown at the maximum-security facility followed an attack on correction officers in one Souza-Baranowski unit in which four guards were injured. The men allegedly responsible for the attack were transferred to other prisons.
“The backlash was immediate and harsh,” according to a complaint filed in federal court on behalf of two inmates at Souza-Baranowski. Correction officials and prison administrators “conspired to retaliate against scores of Black and Latino prisoners who had nothing to do with the January 10th altercation, to send a clear message as to who was ‘in charge’ of SBCC, and to instill a sense of terror and fear of future retaliatory attacks on Black and Latino prisoners.”
Among those cited by name in that lawsuit was O’Reilly. According to documents recently obtained by the Globe’s Spotlight Team, that accusation of use of excessive force wasn’t the only one lodged against O’Reilly in the course of that lockdown. Heavily redacted documents obtained by the Globe indicate that, in the spring of 2020, the DOC Internal Affairs Unit investigated allegations by Isaias Torres-Vega, a former prisoner released last summer at the end of a six-year sentence.
The report, based on prison video, 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,” and then O’Reilly pulls the dog away.
What consequences have there been for O’Reilly? Hard to tell, because more than four pages of the investigator’s conclusion are completely blacked out. There is a reference to a “suspension letter” but DOC would not confirm if O’Reilly actually served a suspension, saying it does not discuss personnel issues.
Today O’Reilly remains as K9 commander.
And the state Department of Correction remains as opaque as ever — still facing that federal lawsuit about officer conduct during the lockdown. It also awaits the final outcome of a scathing Justice Department investigation into its treatment of mentally ill prisoners in the system.
As former Massachusetts Department of Correction commissioner Kathleen Dennehy wrote in a recent memo shared with the Globe editorial board on the subject of prison oversight, “The secrecy inherent in prisons can lead to physical abuse, sexual abuse, medical and mental health consequences, and in extreme cases, even death.”
The United States has “historically relied upon the intervention of courts to address systemic prison conditions and redress individual grievances,” Dennehy wrote. “It is reactive” rather than “conducting on-going monitoring and addressing issues before they spin out of control.”
Dennehy learned all too well what it means to go up against “the system” to try to implement reforms. An appointee of former governor Mitt Romney, she saw her efforts to reform use-of-force policies during her tenure (2004 to 2007) lead to the then-president of the correction officers union, Steve Kenneway, calling her management style “nothing but abrasive,” insisting it will “end up getting an officer killed.”
Kenneway was superintendent of Souza-Baranowski at the time of the lockdown.
Just as police departments have proved themselves incapable of reforming in the absence of public transparency and external accountability, correctional systems, whose personnel practices are almost entirely hidden from public view, need sunshine and scrutiny for there to be any hope for change.
“In the last decade or so, there has been increasing momentum supporting the establishment of external correctional oversight bodies,” wrote Michele Deitch, cofounder and director of the soon-to-be-launched Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. “Since 2010, at least six statewide prison oversight bodies, three statewide jail oversight bodies, and nine local jail oversight bodies have been newly created or significantly strengthened, adding to the relatively short list of those oversight entities of longer standing,” Deitch wrote.
Deitch, in a piece for the Brennan Center for Justice, cited the 2018 creation of a correction ombudsman in Washington state as a model already attracting attention in other states.
Dennehy believes that while there is no one-size-fits-all model, her preference for Massachusetts is a “permanent, independent Inspector General for Corrections” empowered to review in-custody deaths and deaths occurring within six months of a prisoner’s release, allegations of excessive use of force, inmate grievances, and staff discipline. In fact, she suggests correction officers be certified (or decertified) as part of any meaningful oversight reform.
California has had an independent IG for corrections since 1998, although the powers of that office have waxed and waned. Those powers were newly restored and expanded in 2019.
The important part is “independence in the truest sense of that word,” Dennehy said.
That and transparency, she added.
What happens behind prison walls ought not to be shrouded in secrecy or mystery. It’s time to consider a better way — and that better way must include independent oversight of a department that has been a law unto itself for far too long.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.