After a prisoner’s death, renewed calls for change at MCI-Norfolk
A Boston woman is calling for the state to address unsafe conditions inside its largest prison after her uncle died last month as a result, she says, of exposure to a hazardous chemical there and a failure by the Department of Correction to provide appropriate medical care.
Sophia Bishop-Rice mourned her uncle, Roger C. Herbert, at a Roxbury funeral home Sunday, then led nearly 50 marchers a half-mile down Walnut Avenue for a demonstration demanding better conditions for prisoners at MCI-Norfolk.
“It hurts me that my uncle isn’t here to see me continue on my journey, but he has given me a different path to take,” Bishop-Rice, 47, told the crowd outside the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.
MCI-Norfolk prisoners have long complained about water quality at the nearly century-old facility, and after a sediment buildup caused its pipes to run dry in 2011, the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered the installation of a costly water-treatment system.
That system was finally completed in May, but current and former prisoners say they still suffer the effects of the contaminated water. A Globe review of state records last year found that 43 percent of water samples collected at the prison since 2011 showed elevated levels of manganese, found in sediment from wells at the facility.
Manganese is a natural element essential to human life, but overexposure can cause neurological disorders and other health issues.
During Sunday’s march, demonstrators carried candles and crimson balloons — red was Herbert’s favorite color — as well as signs reading, “Cancer on tap! MCI-Norfolk,” and, “Cancer doesn’t discriminate. MCI-Norfolk does!”
Herbert began showing signs of jaundice in April and requested medical care in the prison repeatedly but was given only aspirin and water from the contaminated taps, according to Bishop-Rice. His condition worsened, she said, and his weight plummeted.
After Herbert collapsed in the prison shower, he was taken to Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, where he was eventually diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer, Bishop-Rice said. He died there on Oct. 19.
A spokesman defended the Department of Correction’s procedures in a brief statement.
“The Department’s medical provider attends to the medical needs of our inmate population, treating inmates with minor to significant health care issues daily,” said Jason Dobson, the spokesman.
Bishop-Rice, who is one year younger than Roger Herbert and his twin, Ronald, said she and the brothers emigrated from Barbados with the boys’ adoptive mother, Bishop-Rice’s grandmother, when they were children. As they grew, Roger and Ronald became hardened by bullying over their foreign accents and manners.
As teens, the brothers were frequently in trouble with the law, and both were sentenced to life in prison for the 1990 robbery and murder of Mark Belmore, a 19-year-old Northeastern University sophomore.
Family and friends said after the murder, Roger Herbert turned his life around in prison.
“He did everything he could to be a be a better person,” Bishop-Rice said.
In a phone interview with the Globe Sunday, Ronald Herbert offered an apology to the Belmore family and said after he lost his parents, he understood the Belmores’ pain.
The surviving brother was paroled in July but transferred to the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, where he is attempting to fight deportation to Barbados by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
When he departed Norfolk, he said, his brother appeared to be healthy.
“After I left him . . . his body just deteriorated from that time on,” he said.
Ronald Herbert said he has suffered effects from the water at MCI-Norfolk, and nearly four months after leaving he still has blotchy patches on his skin that require use of a medicated cream to control itching. Getting treatment inside the prison was difficult, he said.
“The medical care department is so bad that they’ll wait until you’re almost close to death to even do something,” he said. “I had to wait five years to get surgery on my hand [after] I had torn a ligament.”
State Representative Russell E. Holmes, who marched with the mourners on Sunday, said issues affecting prisoners are sometimes ignored because they are considered unsympathetic.
“I hear often [from] some of the folks on the other side of this issue that we spend enough money already on prisoners,” he said in an interview. “Some folks just feel like we should really just lock them up and throw away the key. . . . I think that we as a society will be measured by how we treat the most vulnerable.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story stated that a new water treatment system had not been built at MCI-Norfolk.