Every year, Massachusetts prisoners file hundreds of grievances alleging all manner of mistreatment behind bars, from excessive force to racism to harassment — all at the hands of prison employees.
And year after year, state records show, prison officials reject almost all of them.
A Globe review of more than 1,500 prisoner grievances filed from 2018 to 2021 at six of the largest state prisons found that investigators fully corroborated the prisoners’ claims only nine times.
Some of the complaints may very well be groundless. But the Correction Department itself has an internal benchmark where it expects to at least partially approve about 20 percent of overall prisoner grievances. During the three years reviewed by the Globe, prisoners’ claims of staff abuse were fully or partially supported no more than 7 percent of the time.
“Whoa,” said Kathleen Dennehy, a former correction commissioner, after hearing of the prisoners’ low success rate for grievances. “That’s a dismal number.”
The Massachusetts Department of Correction declined multiple requests for comment, but provided background material suggesting the department takes care in reviewing grievances. Claims are investigated by trained grievance coordinators and prisoners can appeal their decisions to the prison superintendent or even the Correction Department’s central office.
But that’s a far cry from assigning an outside agency to investigate grievances, something a blue ribbon panel on prison reform recommended 17 years ago. The Governor’s Commission on Correction Reform said it was unfair to prisoners that department personnel decided whether their allegations of abuse were valid.
Elizabeth Matos, a staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, called the state’s grievance system a “rubber stamp process” offering little chance of justice for the incarcerated men.
Filing a written grievance is one of the few ways prisoners can raise concerns about their treatment behind bars — where there is virtually no outside oversight. If their allegations are almost reflexively dismissed, serious issues such as sexual abuse, racial discrimination, and excessive use of force by correctional officers may go unacknowledged and unaddressed.
Through a public records request, the Globe in partnership with the Justice Media Computational Journalism co-Lab at Boston University obtained 1,540 grievances filed between January 2018 and February 2021 at state prisons in Concord, Norfolk, Gardner, Bridgewater, and two in Shirley.
In addition to the nine complaints where prison officials fully corroborated prisoners’ complaints, they partially approved 69 others, meaning investigators found part of the prisoners’ claims to be true.
Prison superintendents referred another 190 grievances to Internal Affairs for further review because they involved more serious allegations. But Internal Affairs keeps records differently, opening separate cases for each officer named in a single grievance. As a result, it is unclear how many prisoners prevailed. Over the three-year period, the office sided with prisoners 32 times out of 206 allegations investigated by Internal Affairs.
At most, prison officials approved or partially approved just 110 grievances against prison staff at the six prisons during the three years, representing 7 percent of the complaints. That’s well short of the 20 percent benchmark state prison officials use as a target for complaint approvals, though that target applies to the overall number it receives, which also includes complaints about food, facilities, and other issues aside from staff misconduct.
The prisoners’ low success rate suggests that the problems uncovered by the Spotlight team at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley could be systemwide. There, a prison-wide lockdown in early 2020 in response to a prisoner riot generated a record number of grievances, almost all of which were rejected. Of the 638 complaints filed at Souza-Baranowski from January to March of that year, just five were decided in favor of the incarcerated men.
In one case, a handcuffed prisoner in his underwear was seen on video being mauled by a patrol dog, leaving a deep gash in his leg. But when the inmate, Dionisio Paulino, filed a grievance alleging officers beat him and released the dog on him, correction officers countered that Paulino fought with them and tried to kick the dog even though no kick could be seen on video.
Hearing officers rejected Paulino’s grievance due to “an absence of information corroborating the allegation of staff misconduct,” concluding instead that he had assaulted staff. He was given 18 months in what the department calls restrictive housing, or solitary confinement.
In the statewide data, the handling of grievances against correctional officers with numerous complaints is particularly striking.
Two officers from the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord each had 15 complaints, alleging abuses from beating and choking prisoners to throwing their family photos in the toilet. Out of the 26 reports against those two officers — four naming both of them — 23 were denied, one was referred to Internal Affairs for a separate investigation, and one was still under review.
In one grievance, a prisoner said one of the Concord officers sprayed his genitals with a chemical agent that made him feel like his “body was on fire.” The grievance alleged an officer told them they were “asking for it” and to “go put that in your [expletive] grievance.”
The department denied the claim, concluding “that no further investigation is warranted.”
Michele Deitch, a law lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in criminal justice policy, said correction officials need to be questioning why some staff members’ names appear repeatedly: “What’s going on? Why is officer so-and-so being mentioned all the time?”
Officials at the union that represents Massachusetts correctional officers couldn’t be reached for comment, but a national advocate for correctional officers said they shouldn’t be blamed if the prison grievance process doesn’t work.
Brian Dawe, a former correctional officer and national director of One Voice United, said the staff doesn’t set policy; instead, they do the exhausting job of dealing with fires, medical emergencies, drug overdoses, suicide attempts, riots, and other prisoner issues.
Dawe said inadequate grievance procedures start with those in positions of authority.
“Look at the administration,” Dawe said. “It all flows downhill.”
Back in 2004, the gubernatorially appointed Commission on Correction Reform — established after the murder of a pedophile priest by his cellmate at Souza-Baranowski — concluded there were serious problems with the prison grievance process.
Then-governor Mitt Romney created an advisory panel to oversee the implementation of the commission’s 18 recommendations, which included calling for the creation of a new office outside of the department to investigate complaints.
By 2007, then-commissioner Kathleen Dennehy said the department had done all it could to implement the reforms. Establishing an independent office to investigate complaints required legislative action.
Darrell Jones, a community activist who served 32 years in Souza-Baranowski after a wrongful conviction, was in prison when the department changed its grievance system. He said there might as well have been no reform at all.
“The language in the ink changes,” Jones said. “The process never changes.”
More than 15 years later, the Legislature still has not implemented external oversight for grievance investigations, according to Senator James Eldridge. He said the Globe’s “The Taking Cell 15″ investigation was a “real shock to a lot of legislators” and prompted him to propose that the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee hold oversight hearings to monitor Department of Correction practices.
“If we’re not able to hear from incarcerated men and women, we’re not going to get the full picture,” Eldridge said.
Other states, including New York and Maryland, have independent oversight of their correction departments. Deitch, of the University of Texas, said no single state serves as a model for how to fairly handle and investigate prisoner grievances.
“Grievance processes are notoriously bad everywhere,” said Deitch, who favors keeping grievance investigations internal.
Former commissioner Dennehy said an independent oversight position, once created by the Legislature, “shouldn’t be filled by anybody who’s got an economic or political interest in Massachusetts,” adding how they would need “free access” to prison records.
“I think that external group needs to be looking at excessive-use-of-force allegations,” Dennehy said. “They need to be reviewing staff discipline. They need to be reviewing the grievance system.”
Jones, the former Souza-Baranowski prisoner, said the lack of a fair grievance procedure in prison can reinforce lifelong cycles of trauma.
“Someone in there that believes there’s nowhere to go, there’s no one to call, and there’s nowhere to cry — they come home with that same mentality,” Jones said. “We are responsible for what we get back.”
To produce this story, the Globe partnered with Boston University’s Justice Media Computational Journalism co-Lab, a collaboration between the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences’ BU Spark! program, the College of Communication, and the BU Hub Cross-College Challenge. Contributing students were Jay Font, Della Lin, Melissa Lin, and Namu Sampath, with assistance from professors Osama Alshaykh and Brooke Williams.