Officers at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center will be equipped with body-mounted cameras for the first time as soon as this summer, in a $1 million pilot program announced Thursday by the state’s top public safety agency.
The trial program at the state’s only maximum-security institution “reinforces our commitment to advancing the safety of correctional officers and those entrusted to their care,” said Terrence Reidy, secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, in a statement.
The announcement comes as leaders at the Department of Correction face two federal lawsuits alleging excessive force against prisoners at Souza-Baranowski and intense public scrutiny over a controversial extended lockdown two years ago.
The agency said the program has three objectives: To enhance communication and collaboration among DOC staff members; to improve interactions between staff and prisoners; and to strengthen “transparency and accountability.”
Prison experts say that videotaping interactions between officers and prisoners protects the prisoners from excessive force, and the officers from unfounded claims of abuse.
Allegations of prisoner abuse at Souza-Baranowski in early 2020 are the focus of federal civil lawsuits against leaders, employees, and former officials of the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Prisoners across the facility have alleged they were beaten up in misplaced retribution after more than a dozen men incarcerated at Souza assaulted corrections officers in a wild melee on Jan. 10, 2020, in the prison’s N1 unit.
The Globe Spotlight Team last August, in a story titled “The Taking of Cell 15,” wrote about complaints by two Souza prisoners, Dionisio Paulino and Robert Silva-Prentice, who say they were beaten without provocation by a DOC tactical team inside a cell at Souza on Jan. 22, 2020. Officers said the prisoners resisted and fought with them, and that the team used appropriate force to control them.
There was apparently no video from inside the cell to corroborate either version. The Globe, however, was able to obtain video from a stationary security video, showing one of those prisoners mauled by a dog as he was exiting the cell.
Governor Baker raised the issue of videotaping prison operations, such as contraband searches, last summer, in response to a question about the Globe Spotlight investigation.
“The standard rule of thumb at this point is — if they do any kind of a sweep like that in the future, they need to do that with cameras on,” Baker said in August on Boston Public Radio, the WGBH program hosted by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. “They should be filming that stuff.”
State officials began discussing the use of body camera several months ago, according to a release from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
State officials anticipate the initial use of body cameras will begin this summer. “Once deployed, they will augment the facility’s comprehensive network of existing stationary cameras,” the release said.
DOC Commissioner Carol Mici said, “The department supports implementation of the [body camera] pilot program to study how this advanced technology can serve an important role in correctional operations. This innovative tool has a proven track record of improving safety, providing valuable documentation for evidentiary purposes, resolving officer-involved incidents, and offering a useful training tool for the department and its officers.”
Even sharp critics of the Department of Correction welcomed the news of the new program.
“I am encouraged by this first step toward accountability and anticipate that the use of body cameras will decrease the number of staff-on-prisoner assaults and baseless disciplinary charges,” said Boston lawyer Patty DeJuneas, who is handling the Paulino and Silva-Prentice lawsuit against the DOC.
Jesse White, pro bono and policy counsel for the nonprofit group Prisoners’ Legal Services, said in a statement, “Our clients have long asked for body cameras to increase accountability and transparency, and we hope that this change will be helpful for the numerous incarcerated people who are injured by correctional staff every year.”
White said “the devil will be in the details” and the program will need built-in accountability to ensure that the cameras are used consistently in accordance with policy.
State Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who has filed legislation seeking to bring in civilian oversight of prisons and jails, called the program “a significant step forward for transparency” that he hopes will help change “the violent culture at Souza-Baranowski.”
The union representing corrections officers could not be reached for comment Thursday.
A research team will evaluate the initial rollout of the pilot program over several months, the agency said.