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New bill proposes civilian oversight for Massachusetts prisons

Senator James Eldridge calls for independent oversight to help reform the agency, currently facing two federal lawsuits alleging misconduct

Senator James Eldridge, pictured in 2020, has filed a bill to establish a new five-member commission with the authority to hear and investigate grievances lodged by incarcerated people and the power to compel prison and jail authorities to give public testimony and correct problems in their institutions.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Amid two federal lawsuits alleging excessive force by Massachusetts prison officials, a leading critic of the Department of Correction has filed a bill to establish independent civilian oversight of the state’s prisons and jails, bringing outside accountability to some of the least transparent parts of government.

A bill filed by state Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, seeks to establish a new five-member commission with the authority to hear and investigate grievances lodged by incarcerated people and the power to compel prison and jail authorities to give public testimony and correct problems in their institutions.

“I think that there are a growing number of legislators who think that unless there’s an independent oversight commission, you’re not going to see change in the DOC,” Eldridge said.

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The legislation comes in the wake of two civil lawsuits filed against the Department of Correction over the past year, each alleging that prison officials orchestrated a wave of retributory violence in early 2020 against men incarcerated at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster.

Eldridge said DOC oversight bills have been filed in the past, most recently the early 2000s, but they have not passed. Nationally, there has been gathering momentum over the past decade for prison oversight bodies, according to 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.

The proposed oversight commission, according to Eldridge’s legislation, would include two retired justices appointed by the governor; one retired corrections officer appointed by the governor; one person who was previously incarcerated, appointed by the governor; and the executive director of the nonprofit advocate Prisoners’ Legal Service or that person’s designee.

The panel would “act as the primary civil enforcement agency” for grievances brought against the Department of Correction, taking the responsibility to investigate grievances away from the DOC, Eldridge said in an interview.

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The proposed “Civilian Oversight of Correctional Facilities Commission” would also “hold hearings on prisoner grievances, order systemic reforms to the DOC, [address] access to visiting DOC facilities, order the DOC to give testimony and produce documents, and refer any misconduct to the attorney general or the US Department of Justice,” Eldridge said.

The panel, as Eldridge envisions it, would have real bite, with the potent power to issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to give testimony under oath, according to the legislation.

A Department of Correction spokesman said Tuesday that the department does not comment on proposed legislation. A request for comment sent Wednesday morning to the union that represents Massachusetts corrections officers was not immediately answered.

Elizabeth Matos, director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said in a statement, “it is simply impossible to have any real sense of accountability if laws, mandates and internal policies are routinely ignored by the DOC and other correctional administrators. Independent oversight is necessary because the corrections system has repeatedly proven itself to be opaque, harmful and untrustworthy.”

One outspoken critic of the Massachusetts penal system, Darrell Jones, said a civilian oversight panel could pierce the secrecy of the corrections department. Jones served 32 years in prison before he was acquitted in a retrial in 2019.

“Why is it a secret society on your tax money?” Jones said. “The public really needs to know what’s happening in prison. They pay for it. Why are they paying for something they don’t know anything about?”

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Whether the bill can pass is unknown, though Eldridge believes momentum is building for change.

“With a new governor coming in, does the Legislature need to flex its muscles, if you will, and say we need to create this independent commission?” he said. “It’s not clear, but I think that there’s growing support from legislators that have been going into the prisons.”

The state is currently defending itself from at least two federal lawsuits stemming from a lockdown at Souza-Baranowski in early 2020. Both of the suits say that after four corrections officers were hurt on Jan. 10, 2020, in an assault by several prisoners in Souza’s N1 unit, authorities unleashed violence against men across the institution who had nothing to do with the brawl — either as misplaced retribution or to send a message about who was in control of the state’s only maximum-security prison.

One of the lawsuits was filed in September by two men incarcerated at Souza who say they were beaten up without provocation by a DOC tactical team on Jan. 22, 2020 — a case featured in the Globe’s Spotlight Team report, “The Taking of Cell 15.” One of the men was then mauled by a DOC patrol dog, despite being handcuffed behind the back and under physical escort by two corrections officers.

Last week, nine Black and Latino men who are, or were, incarcerated at Souza-Baranowski filed suit against DOC leadership and a number of corrections officers. That litigation, organized by Prisoners’ Legal Services, also alleges that the men suffered unprovoked violence by prison officials in the days and weeks after the Jan. 10, 2020, melee.

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An investigative report in the Globe, in partnership with the Justice Media Computational Journalism co-Lab at Boston University, found in December that prisoner grievances alleging mistreatment are rarely affirmed by DOC officials.


Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.