‘I’m a shell of who I used to be.’ A female prison guard’s tale of torment
The morning after her ordeal, after her husband dragged her upstairs, put a gun to her head, and sexually assaulted her, Marycatherin DeFazio left the little house she loved, where one wall was now speckled with her blood. She drove through the woods of central Massachusetts to Queen Lake, another quiet place that felt like home, and sat on the grass staring out at the calm water.
It was June. Her face was bruised and broken. Her mind felt empty, detached from what had happened and what would happen next. Then a police car pulled up nearby. By chance, the officer was a friend of hers, a veteran cop who saw that something was terribly wrong. She knew he wanted to help, but she was in shock, unable, she says, to find the words to tell him what had happened.
Instead, she asked the officer to take her guns. She had grabbed them from the house before she fled, including the weapon used to threaten her during the assault, because she feared her husband would come back and kill her.
The officer agreed to take the weapons, DeFazio says. Later, when she was ready to report the assault, she called him and he went with her to the police station.
Marycatherin — most people call her Maria — worked as a correction officer in the state prison system. She knew what victims endured: the grueling investigative interviews and endless court proceedings, the trauma of reliving the crime repeatedly, the toll of worrying that an assailant might return. Still, she believed she could move forward. She had made it out alive. The worst had to be behind her.
She could not have imagined, that summer day in 2010, how new suffering would grow out of this pain. Her prison workplace would become her own prison, the torment she faced from her own colleagues unrelenting. No matter how she tried, she would find no way to stop it. And she would never know for certain why she was treated this way. Was it because she was an outsider at the new prison where she had been transferred? Or because she was a woman working among mostly men? Or did it grow out of some misplaced loyalty to her husband, who had been a prison guard, too, and still had friends in the system?
The onslaught would begin as a lone insult tossed her way, then become a steady hail of them. Slut. Whore. Stupid bitch. Every shift she worked at NCCI Gardner, a low- and medium-security prison north of Worcester, the hateful words were hurled at her by other officers, DeFazio says, men and women wearing the same uniform she did. They seemed to her to take pleasure in it. Most days, a sympathetic supervisor would come to escort her to her assignment. The protection tempered the name-calling, but it also fueled lurid, unfounded gossip about her sleeping with her bosses.
The verbal battering was only the beginning. DeFazio says that in time, her co-workers put their slander in writing, scrawling profanities next to her name in the book where employees updated their schedules and leaving derogatory graffiti about her in the bathrooms. They stole her time card, bumped into her on purpose as she waited by the time clock to punch in or out, and threw things at her, according to the civil lawsuit she filed against the Department of Correction in 2016 in Worcester Superior Court.
More ominous, she says, colleagues sometimes ignored her radio calls on the job, making her feel isolated and at risk in a workplace where staff safety was always a concern. When she called guards in other parts of the prison to share information or ask for help, they sometimes hung up on her, says DeFazio, whose account of her experience was corroborated by two retired DOC lieutenants who supervised her at the Gardner prison and spoke to the Globe, Joe Mitchell and Charlie Guy. A third person, Ed Sawicki, a fellow officer who worked with her and observed the bullying, also corroborated her account.
Arriving at work each day, steeling herself for abuse, DeFazio says she passed a poster hanging in the “trap,” a secure passage between the lobby and the prison interior. Workplace bullying, it said, would not be tolerated. As the months went by, DeFazio would test that promise, reporting her mistreatment to prison officials and asking for help. But help didn’t come, she says. She became convinced that her abuse would continue, and be tolerated by those whose job it was to ensure fair treatment.
Department of Correction officials declined to speak about details of DeFazio’s case, citing a policy against discussing personnel issues, but said in a statement that the department has “zero tolerance for workplace violence in any form, and any allegations of staff misconduct are taken seriously and thoroughly investigated.”
“The allegations raised by Ms. DeFazio were fully investigated by the Department and any matters that needed to be addressed as a result of the investigation were addressed,” the statement said.
As DeFazio navigated her own daily battles, she had no idea that workplace bullying, in a variety of forms, was being reported across the Commonwealth, from the campus of UMass Amherst to state hospitals in Worcester and Boston. Legislation to protect severely bullied employees, known as the Healthy Workplace Bill, made little headway when it was first proposed a decade ago in Massachusetts. It has gained support more recently, as sexual harassment claims resulting from the #MeToo movement exposed the prevalence of toxic workplaces, and a bill introduced this winter at the State House now has more than 100 legislative co-sponsors. But it still faces stiff opposition from business leaders who say it is unnecessary and would expose them unfairly to liability.
The Globe reviewed dozens of complaints of workplace harassment and intimidation from around the state, documented in lawsuits, discrimination commission cases, and legislative testimony. Among them, DeFazio’s stood out for its cruelty. Her experience, which she agreed to share because she wanted others in similar situations to feel less alone, embodies a hard truth, according to experts: Severe, persistent bullying, whether at school or at work, can do lasting harm and change lives forever.
“I had it all together,” says DeFazio. “Now I’m a shell of who I used to be.”
. . .
As a child, DeFazio says, she suffered both physical and sexual abuse. It was a painful start that left her with a quality she prized, her mental toughness. In her line of work, it was her greatest asset. At the start of her career, before the bullying began, she worked in the disciplinary unit at MCI Cedar Junction, the maximum-security prison in Walpole. Even there, among inmates considered some of the state’s most dangerous, DeFazio felt in control, unflappable.
When a prisoner named Joseph Druce threw urine on her as she passed his cell, she says, she ignored the convicted murderer, who was already serving a life sentence when he strangled child-molesting priest John Geoghan. She was unperturbed by the men who masturbated openly as she made her rounds, and by the baby-faced prisoner who told her in a sympathetic tone that he was sorry he would have to kill her before he sexually assaulted her.
She took pride in handling the demands of the job, and in making her way on her own paycheck. Self-sufficiency was all she’d wanted since she struck out on her own at 17 years old. A voracious reader, hell-bent on going to college, she says she grew up stubbornly determined to defy the low expectations that trailed her.
A year before she started her career in corrections, DeFazio bought a modest house at auction. It was the realization of a dream, and she set about turning the place into her refuge. In her yard, on a winding road deep in rural Worcester County, she planted gardens inspired by the famous Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls. Among the plants she pressed into the earth were orange tiger lilies from her beloved grandmother’s house, dug up and replanted after the older woman’s death.
It was quiet and serene, exactly what she needed after shifts in Walpole. The prison was loud and harsh and unpredictable. She was blonde and pretty, one of a handful of women employees, who attracted plenty of unwanted male attention. When the interest came from other officers, DeFazio tried to dodge it without causing offense. Then she met a guard at Walpole, Daniel Paniss, who treated her, at first, with unusual courtesy. They married in 2009. Quickly, she says, her dream became a nightmare. He hit her, according to DeFazio and court records; she alleges that he also stole from her and burned her personal photos. Paniss did not respond to phone calls from a reporter.
DeFazio says she kicked him out of the house in the summer of 2010, less than a year after they had wed. Around that time, on June 13, 2010, he entered the house while she was resting and started yelling at her, according to recordings of hearings in the case. When DeFazio bolted for the door, he chased her, grabbed her, and dragged her upstairs. He said he would kill her and kill himself. Then he shut them both in a bedroom and assaulted her at gunpoint before throwing the gun in her face, according to the recordings. The next day, after he finally left, she drove in a daze to the lake, where, she says, the police officer found her.
The days and weeks that followed were a blur. DeFazio later received phone messages from her husband telling her it would be her fault when he was dead. She gathered her strength and reported both the phone calls and the earlier assault to local police, who found him and arrested him. Step by step, she did the things she had to do. She changed her locks and spoke to investigators. She testified before a grand jury and sought treatment for her anxiety. Four months later, he was indicted on charges of aggravated rape and armed kidnapping. Then he was arraigned, and released on his own recognizance, with a curfew and a GPS tracking bracelet.
As the shock began to ebb, she told herself she would not be defined by this act of violence and degradation. And she resolved that she would not let it break her.
. . .
After the attack, when she returned to work, DeFazio asked to be transferred out of Walpole. She wanted to be as far away as she could get: As the case ground slowly toward a trial, Paniss was living nearby, and everyone who worked in the prison knew what had happened, including his friends. Six months later, in July 2011, she was transferred to NCCI Gardner.
She thought she would feel safer. But the abuse began almost right away.
Of all the possible reasons for the antagonism that ran through DFazio’s head, she kept coming back to one — what had happened with her husband.
Paniss had left his job at Walpole around the time they were married, but he had friends there who blamed her for the charges against him, some who believed she had lied about what happened. In DeFazio’s experience, the state corrections system was a boys club where rumors and grudges traveled fast. She was 60 miles away now, at a different prison, but it felt like gossip about her had arrived at Gardner before she did.
It probably didn’t help that some of her colleagues seemed to perceive her as a threat, she says.
“It’s the brotherhood, and who the hell did I think I was, correcting their reports, their spelling, their improper English?” DeFazio says.
There was something else that turned them against her, too, she knew, an episode she’d been caught up in years before at Walpole. The details were bizarre, easy fuel for gossip. A nurse at Walpole, Deborah Girouard, had been caught in 2008 plotting to help an inmate escape — and not just any inmate, but a notorious rapist, Che Sosa, who had been accused of stabbing two correction officers, and on another occasion, even his own lawyer, in the face, in court.
During an internal investigation into Girouard’s misconduct, the accused nurse produced two letters she said DeFazio had written to Sosa. The notes were friendly in tone; one described details of her upcoming wedding to Paniss. Any such show of familiarity between an officer and a prisoner would be grounds for termination under DOC policy.
In an interview with investigators, DeFazio initially denied the letters were hers, according to a report filed by an arbitrator who later reviewed DOC’s investigation of the matter. Then she acknowledged they were hers but said she had written one to a friend and the other to her fiance, and that they had gone missing from her bag at work. She was fired anyway, with a second charge added for smoking on her own time outside of work, which DOC prohibits.
Her union appealed, arguing that the department never proved she wrote the letters to the inmate. A year and a half later, the arbitrator agreed, finding that prison officials had failed to prove their case. DeFazio got her job back, but the damage to her reputation was done. The accusation would follow her as long she worked in the prisons. “Con lover” would be among the names she was called years later at Gardner.
It didn’t matter to the people convinced of her guilt that she had ultimately won her job back. Nor did it seem to matter, on the eve of his trial in the spring of 2012, that her ex-husband, then 47, pleaded guilty to indecent assault, armed kidnapping, and assault with a dangerous weapon, and was sentenced to serve 18 months in jail and six years probation, with therapy and anger management classes. Even with the case resolved, and his admission of guilt in the record, the punishment by her co-workers continued, she says.
To the two former lieutenant supervisors at the Gardner prison who corroborated DeFazio’s account of bullying, who say they tried in vain to stem the tide of harassment against her, the harassment was appalling and unprecedented. When they took the matter up with their own superiors, their concerns were brushed aside, said Mitchell. Both men said they faced workplace hostility themselves after they tried to insist she be treated fairly. One said his disgust hastened his retirement.
“They had such contempt for her,” says Mitchell, who spent 17 years with the department before retiring in 2015. “I have integrity. I know what’s right, and this was wrong.”
. . .
In March of 2012, DeFazio says, she spoke up about the harassment for the first time to the prison’s head of security, John Flowers. She says he dismissed her concern without investigating, a claim she repeated in her later lawsuit. Flowers did not respond to a reporter’s inquiry made through the DOC; in court documents, he said DeFazio never filled out a formal report. That summer, her mistreatment escalated. An officer threw a set of keys at her, DeFazio says. Another colleague encouraged inmates to harass her verbally. Other officers ignored her, she recalled, pretending they could not see her or hear her when she spoke.
“Toughen up,” she says one of her co-workers advised her when she voiced concern.
It was easy for much of the abuse to go unnoticed. She worked 3 to 11 p.m., the “cowboy shift,” she says, when dozens of officers are on the job but only a handful of supervisors. Sometimes officers were assigned partners and sometimes not, depending on their assignments. She sometimes patrolled the residential units; other times she worked in the entry station where visitors were processed.
At least once, DeFazio says, she was sent into the prison library, in close proximity to inmates, with a radio that turned out to have a dead battery, leaving her with no way to call for backup if she needed it. She could not prove that her colleagues had given her the faulty equipment on purpose, but she wondered.
Diagnosed with PTSD after the assault by her husband in 2010, DeFazio was already coping with symptoms of anxiety, hypervigilance, and self-doubt, and she struggled with the heightened fears caused by her isolation at work. She dealt with it the best she could. But the danger felt real, and the scale of the scorn she faced was daunting.
“I knew there would always be people who didn’t like you,” she says. “But I was stunned when I realized what this was . . . dozens and dozens of people.”
Even her own union representative — a fellow correction officer charged with representing the interests of his colleagues — lashed out at her with stunning cruelty, DeFazio says.
“It’s too bad your husband wasn’t successful with the murder-suicide,” DeFazio says the officer, David Christian, told her in May 2013, an episode she later described in the lawsuit she filed against the state.
Christian did not respond to a reporter’s inquiry made through the DOC. The union for the state’s prison guards, the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In July and August of 2012, DeFazio says, she filed two more formal complaints about her harassment with prison officials. DOC opened an internal review of her claims. But, DeFazio says, she learned later that the investigator assigned to her case, Sergeant Crystal Johnson, was related by marriage to one of her tormentors, a claim she included in her later lawsuit. Johnson, who has since left the department, did not respond to an inquiry from a reporter made through another employer.
It took more than a year for a ruling in the DOC investigation, and when it came, in the summer of 2013, the result crushed DeFazio’s last hopes. DeFazio says DOC never notified her of any punishment for guards who taunted her. But she and one of her supervisors, Mitchell, who had testified on her behalf, were both found guilty of a rule infraction unrelated to the bullying — sharing computer system passwords, a common practice in the prison, they say. Each was penalized with an unpaid suspension. DeFazio was slapped with other offenses as well, accused of discussing her case with other staff and falsely saying she’d given her superiors a harassing letter that was sent to her home. DeFazio maintains that she did hand over the letter.
“You start to wonder,” she says of the outcome, “does anybody care?”
DOC’s Office of Diversity reviewed the investigation and acknowledged that “multiple staff conflict had occurred,” but seemed to direct blame at DeFazio.
She “had a reputation of not being able to get along with other staff,” Deputy Director Carol Thomas wrote in the report, dated July 2013, “and staff had a tendency to treat her negatively . . . [She] is an individual who has faced a lot of personal trauma and is very sensitive to conflicts directed towards her.”
The report appears to minimize the conflict, describing it as “petty” and “annoying.”
“Petty behaviors in the workplace is [sic] no different from the myriad of other interpersonal challenges we face in our work lives however, it is one of the more annoying facets of the human condition,” Thomas wrote in her summary. She recommended that the department schedule a class on workplace civility for prison employees.
Convinced the bullying had made it impossible for her to work safely side by side with her colleagues, DeFazio and her superiors came up with a way to work around it. She submitted a formal request, under federal disability law, for a solo assignment in one of the prison’s guard towers, referencing her post-traumatic stress. Her request was granted, and after that, she completed her shifts in isolation, climbing a spiral staircase to a sparsely furnished room. There, looking down onto the prison yard and surrounding fences, she weathered the rumors and the insults from a distance.
That summer, in spite of the turmoil around her, DeFazio received a glowing performance review from her supervisors. The assessment, included in her later lawsuit, called her “an asset . . . professional, hardworking and dedicated despite the adversity she faces on a continual basis.” It would be her last review as a DOC employee.
Two months later, in mid-August, an officer she knew wished her a happy birthday as she arrived at work. The greeting lifted her, but later that day she heard that the man who said it had been harassed for being nice to her. It was no surprise, but the pettiness of it hit hard, a sharp reminder of how fiercely the others despised her.
In despair that day, she turned to one of the supervisors who had tried to help her, Lieutenant Guy. When, she says she asked him, would the bullying end?
It won’t, she remembers the lieutenant telling her sadly.
Something flickered through her, and she knew that she was done. “I’m going home,” she said, and headed down the stairs.
DeFazio never returned to the prison. She had escaped the bullying, but she had lost her career.
. . .
In the months and years that followed, DeFazio fought on, seeking some justice for the misery she’d been through. But she faced financial devastation as well as emotional trauma. The department formally fired her, and a judge dismissed her wrongful termination lawsuit, ruling that a three-year statute of limitations had passed and that her PTSD had rendered her unfit to return to the job in any case. Her worker’s compensation payments stopped coming. Another judge ordered her ex-husband to pay her $500,000 for lost wages, medical expenses, and emotional distress, but she never saw a cent, she says, and does not expect to.
A year ago, afraid of losing her home — the one thing she had left — she withdrew her modest savings from the state retirement system. It was a painful step, she says, that forced her to give up her four-year quest for a state disability pension; without money in the system, she had no more standing to pursue her application. Paniss, her ex-husband, continues to receive his state retirement pension.
It felt to her like the bullies had won. As spring deepened into lush greens around her, DeFazio lapsed into hopelessness.
Then she steeled herself to what needed to be done. Her gardens lay in ruins, but they could grow once more, and the little house she loved could be a home again.
She returned to her refuge in the woods, to paint and patch the walls and eventually to plant, imagining a day when she might find peace.