A federal lawsuit filed Monday by nine Black and Latino men who are, or recently were, incarcerated at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center accuses prison officials of orchestrating “weeks of unprovoked, retaliatory violence” against prisoners as a brutal reminder about who was in charge of the maximum-security institution.
The lawsuit, prepared by the nonprofit agency Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, is the latest fallout from a controversial prison-wide lockdown and contraband search at Souza-Baranowski in early 2020. Prison officials locked down the facility and launched the shakedown in response to an assault on corrections officers by about 20 men in Souza’s N1 unit on Jan. 10, 2020. The lawsuit comes on the second anniversary of that brawl.
The suit describes a 5-week “retaliatory force campaign” by prison authorities against men who had nothing to do with the assault in the N1 unit. The campaign “consisted of officers attacking more than 100 prisoners using extreme, malicious, and cruel methods of force designed not to restore order, but to inflict pain, fear, and trauma,” the lawsuit states.
Elizabeth Matos, director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said the lawsuit “aims to bring much needed and overdue justice to the many who were subjected to extreme and unlawful use of force by state officials and officers charged with their care.”
The action is also an attempt to rein in a state corrections system that is “allowed to act with impunity over and over again,” she said.
“It is simply high time to hold corrections accountable,” Matos said in a statement.
Reached Monday, a Department of Correction spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.
The 59-page PLS complaint is unsparingly tough in its language and blunt in its allegations.
It accuses prison officials of “unconstitutional brutality,” including “beating and kicking prisoners; gouging eyes; grabbing testicles; smashing faces into the ground or wall; deploying Taser guns, pepper ball guns, and other chemical agents; ordering K9s to menace and bite prisoners; and excessively tightening handcuffs and forcing prisoners’ arms into unnatural and painful positions, among other positional torture tactics.”
“Officers targeted Black and Latinx prisoners for especially brutal and degrading treatment, such as yanking and ripping out dreadlocks and braids and shouting racist comments and slurs as the officers assaulted them,” the lawsuit states. The plaintiffs allege that “some officers” displayed white supremacist logos on their helmets.
Souza-Baranowski, in Lancaster, opened in 1998 and is the state’s only maximum-security prison. In general, it holds men who have been convicted of serious crimes and those who have accumulated disciplinary infractions at other prisons. As of Dec. 27, Souza held 517 men, according to state figures.
The allegations in the new PLS lawsuit track closely with those contained in a Globe Spotlight story from last August, which investigated the allegations of two Souza prisoners, Dionisio Paulino and Robert Silva-Prentice, who say they were beaten without provocation inside a cell on Jan. 22, 2020. Paulino, while handcuffed and under physical escort by two officers, was then attacked and mauled by a Department of Correction patrol dog. At least four officers filed reports containing falsehoods about the incident, according to the Globe review.
Paulino and Silva-Prentice filed their own federal lawsuit in September against state and prison officials, accusing them of conspiring to punish prisoners across the institution with violence. The civil suit is in its early stages, according to Patty DeJuneas, the Boston lawyer spearheading the litigation.
The nine plaintiffs in the new Prisoners’ Legal Services lawsuit are: Dwayne Diggs, Demetrius Goshen, James Jacks, David Jackson, Raphael Rebollo, Luis Saldana, Davongie Stone, Xavier Valentin-Soto, and Danavian Daniel. The men were incarcerated for a variety of serious convictions. The suit — also prepared with the help of the law firm Hogan Lovells — was filed Monday afternoon.
Among 18 defendants are DOC Commissioner Carol Mici, former DOC deputy commissioner Paul Henderson, former Souza-Baranowski superintendent Steve Kenneway, and several corrections officers.
Gratuitous staff violence is a longstanding problem at Souza-Baranowski, the lawsuit states. The plaintiffs allege that DOC officials for years have ignored the department’s policies designed to minimize violence between staff and prisoners, including requirements that planned uses of force be recorded with a handheld camera, that force is to be a last resort never to be used as a punishment, and that no more force should be applied than the minimum necessary to get a prisoner’s compliance.
Daniel, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement that on Jan. 24, 2020, four or five officers suddenly stormed into his cell, pinned him to the floor, and punched and stomped on him.
“I could hear the screams of my neighbor in the next cell as he was being tased and beaten,” Daniel said. “... An officer started choking me. I prayed I wouldn’t die, thinking of my family at home. I could see my cellmate being choked on the floor next to me, and hoped that he would survive too.”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and asks the court to order the department “to formulate a remedy subject to the court’s approval and modification… to end the pattern of excessive force against prisoners,” the lawsuit states.