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A riot earlier this month at the state’s maximum-security prison in Shirley began when inmates returning from the gym refused to reenter their cells because they wanted to shower, according to a preliminary investigation by the state Department of Correction.

Rather than confront the 46 prisoners and risk a violent confrontation, the guards withdrew from the cellblock, officials said.

With no authorities in control, the inmates spent three hours wreaking havoc in what became one of the largest prison riots in recent state history.

They destroyed furniture, and computers, lit a small fire, and smashed sprinkler heads, which sent water spraying into the housing unit.

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Officers eventually quelled the uprising with pepper spray.

No one was injured in the Jan. 9 melee at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley and officials have yet to determine the cost of the damage.

The Department of Correction said its investigators determined that 32 prisoners took part in the destruction of property. Fourteen of those were identified as “ringleaders” and transferred to other prisons; the remaining 18 were seen on video surveillance wrecking the cellblock.

Officials said the inmates may face criminal charges for offenses such as malicious destruction of property.


Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@globe.com.