Inmates at the state’s maximum-security prison in Lancaster submitted letters to Attorney General Andrea Campbell this week announcing a hunger strike and requesting an “immediate investigation” into one of the prison units where they allege repeated assaults by correctional officers and conditions that amount to solitary confinement, which the state promised to eliminate two years ago.
“Can you imagine being secluded in a tight space that’s the size of some of your bathrooms, being doused with teargas with no possibility to open your window,” a group of nine inmates asked in one letter Wednesday, referring to conditions at Souza-Baranowski’s Secure Adjustment Unit, which was created with the stated goal of providing mental health services, education, and structured recreation.
Another inmate similarly wrote to Campbell, “The [Department of Correction] has done nothing virtually in response to our protest and they have made little effort to ameliorate the conditions. The DOC need[s] to do more, and MUST be held accountable for their actions.”
A spokesperson for Campbell confirmed Friday that the office received the letters and is reviewing them.
“Campbell believes incarcerated people must be treated with dignity and live in fair and safe conditions,” the spokesperson said in an email.
A Department of Correction spokesperson declined to comment on the assault allegations, and said that while the department was made aware of several people engaged in a hunger strike, those individuals refused to be assessed by medical or mental health staff or explain the reason for their strike, and have since begun accepting meals again.
“The Department of Correction’s top priority is the health and well-being of all living and working in our facilities,” Jason Dobson, the department spokesman, said in an email. He added that the department “has comprehensive policies and procedures to address when individuals decline meals as a form of protest.”
The letters to Campbell were mailed to her office Thursday by a member of the Boston College Law School Civil Rights Clinic, according to the clinic’s director Reena Parikh.
Parikh said at least four of the 19 inmates who began the strike on Oct. 6 were still not eating as of Wednesday.
“They were pepper sprayed, people had black eyes, and for completely civil [actions] like explaining their concerns or asking to speak to a supervisor,” Parikh said.
The allegations of excessive use of force date back to June, when inmates were transferred to Souza from a solitary confinement unit at another state prison that was shut down after a lawsuit filed last year, Parikh said. In one letter, inmates described being “violently thrown to the ground, [with] 2-3 people transferring all their bodyweight onto you with their knees in your back... guards bending your wrist in a way that’s on the verge of being broken.”
The letters specifically referred to the Secure Adjustment Unit, calling it “a constant battleground for protest by the people confined” to live there.
The unit was created “in an effort to end solitary confinement, but has mirrored the same conditions as previous restrictive housing units,” one letter said. Inmates said that while the unit technically abides by the requirement that incarcerated persons must have a minimum of 2 hours outside their cells, the men are still restrained, given little opportunity for social interaction, and fed an insufficient amount of food.
Parikh added that, in meetings with clients, she and her students have witnessed firsthand some of the conditions inmates face: having both legs shackled to the floor and one arm shackled to the table, or more recently, being placed in a cage with a small hole to pass documents through.
“People are being told that you can be in this unit for 18 months to six years,” she said. “Those rights to placement reviews so you can show that you deserve to get out ... those don’t exist here.”
The letter said the hunger strike was a sign that the men were “out of options” in addressing chronic abuse. Last year, nine Black and Latino men who were incarcerated at Souza filed a federal lawsuit accusing prison officials of orchestrating “weeks of unprovoked, retaliatory violence” in early 2020. The lawsuit is still pending.
Separately, several state legislators are sponsoring a bill, spearheaded by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, that would create an independent oversight commission run by the Inspector General’s office to oversee the Department of Correction, including issuing sanctions when staff fail to comply with requested reforms — such as the abandonment of solitary confinement.
“This commission would give incarcerated individuals the opportunity to submit their grievances to the office and our investigators would conduct an independent investigation and hopefully, in a case like this, resolve the circumstances leading up to the hunger strike,” said LaToya Whiteside, a senior staff attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services.
Whiteside added that the proposal aims to establish an “enforcement mechanism” and fine the department if it does not implement reforms.
State Senator Jamie Eldridge, whose district includes the prison, said that despite steps taken by legislators in the 2018 criminal justice reform law, he was “not convinced” that inmates in the Secure Adjustment Unit are being given access to their rights under state law.
“It’s the official mission of the Department of Correction — in its own name — to quote-unquote correct people, and to rehabilitate people,” he said in a phone interview Friday. “The conditions the men at the SAU [face]... I still question whether they are truly humane.”