For the past several years the Massachusetts Department of Correction has been a leader in one key respect — its overtime budget. Even as the number of state prison inmates continues to dwindle, overtime costs continue to rise.
Now comes a scandal of a more personal nature involving at least $100,000 in improperly awarded overtime — and still no broad-brush investigation, no effort to stem the flood of tens of millions of dollars in OT at a time when advocates are pushing for better uses of that money, like increased educational programming.
The emerging scandal involving the former director of operational services at DOC ought to spur a deeper dive into the black hole that is DOC’s operations. It surely ought to trigger a legislative probe — that is if a federal grand jury doesn’t get there first.
The current scandal involves Raymond Turcotte, who, in a story first reported by WGBH News, was fired last April from his post as head of operational services in the wake of allegations he improperly approved $100,000 worth of overtime for a team he supervised. Oh, and he gifted a girlfriend with some 1,500 rounds of ammunition from the department’s inventory, which he was charged with overseeing. (When did flowers go out of style?)
The allegations were first brought to the attention of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici in emails by a “citizen” last January, according to an internal DOC report obtained by WGBH News. That alone is a rather shocking commentary on the department’s own operational controls — or lack thereof. Turcotte was put on paid leave between January and April when he was finally dismissed. His severance package, according to the state comptroller’s office records, was $112,994.
Turcotte is accused of falsifying his own hours as an instructor at the Bridge Academy and approving overtime payments (rather than regular wages) for other DOC officers teaching at the academy, which is run under a contract with the Municipal Police Training Committee.
Also caught up in the scandal was Charles Primack, then assistant deputy commissioner of field services, who was both Turcotte’s boss and another instructor at the academy. He has since been demoted to lieutenant for “failing to even minimally supervise” Turcotte’s approval of overtime pay. He remains on the payroll, collecting some $109,000 this year, including more than $11,000 in overtime.
Both Turcotte and Primack are named defendants in two federal civil rights suits filed on behalf of current and former inmates at the Souza-Baranowski maximum security prison alleging a “retaliatory force campaign” targeting Black and Latino inmates and violation of their constitutional rights by prison officials in the wake of a riot in another section of the prison. Some of the brutality against those bringing suit was reported in the Globe’s 2021 Spotlight series, “The Taking of Cell 15.”
The only comment so far relative to the Turcotte case from a DOC spokesperson was “The DOC investigates every allegation of staff misconduct brought to its attention and takes appropriate administrative action up to and including termination.”
The fact that $100,000 in overtime could go out without a blink of the eye is hardly astonishing when the department’s overtime budget routinely tops $60 million a year, with more than two dozen correction officers getting more than $100,000 in overtime alone each year.
This year the department is running third in the state, already racking up more than $45 million in overtime, placing behind only the MBTA ($77 million) and the State Police ($52 million) in total amounts of overtime paid out so far. Now keep in mind Massachusetts only has around 6,000 individuals incarcerated in state prisons — a 45 percent decrease since 2014.
And yet as prison populations decrease, costs, especially overtime costs, have increased. DOC maintains overtime can fluctuate year over year depending on retirements or attrition or prisoner trips to the hospital. However, in recent years the trend is in only one direction — up.
The phenomenon isn’t new. It was noted in a 2017 MassINC report by Benjamin Forman and Michael Widmer, then head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, that while the DOC population decreased 8 percent between 2012 and 2015, the DOC budget increased 12 percent.
In 2019 a Globe review noted that the population had dipped 19 percent since 2015 but overtime costs tripled.
And unlike police departments where, say, a summer of street demonstrations or other unanticipated events can jack up overtime expenditures, well-managed prisons are fairly predictable places — emphasis on the well.
Add in a scandal like the Turcotte case — which remember was brought to the commissioner’s attention by someone outside the system — and you have a picture of a system badly in need of either outside supervision, a thorough house-cleaning, or both.
A bill filed by Senator Liz Miranda and supported by Senator Will Brownsberger proposes an independent inspector general for the department — a system the federal government uses to great advantage.
As for that house-cleaning — despite the attention Governor Maura Healey has paid to the Parole Board and clemency issues, she has not yet zeroed in on the correction system. Those two federal civil rights suits and this most recent scandal should be reason enough for her to focus on a department that shows no inclination to change on its own.
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