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Federal officials investigate Mass. prisons on elderly, ill inmates, solitary confinement

(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File)

Federal prosecutors are investigating the Massachusetts prison system over its use of solitary confinement, and the treatment of elderly and severely ill prisoners, according to several attorneys who have spoken with federal investigators.

The investigation, launched by the civil rights unit of the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts, is focused on reports of mistreatment of inmates in order to identify potential patterns and practices of abuse, those familiar with the investigation said.

Lawyers who have been interviewed by federal investigators said they have provided documents alleging abuses of inmates who are 50 and older, inmates who are terminally ill, and prisoners who have spent months, even years, in isolation.

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The investigation was not sparked by any particular incident but rather a general concern over the treatment of inmates in poor health, and the state’s use of lengthy periods of solitary confinement, according to a person familiar with the review.

The Massachusetts Department of Correction acknowledged it is under federal investigation. But a spokesman, Jason Dobson, declined to comment on specifics of the enquiry.

“The Department of Correction actively maintains facilities to meet stringent state and federal guidelines and we will continue to fully cooperate with this ongoing investigation,” Dobson said.

The Department of Justice and the US attorney in Boston declined to comment.

Lawyers and advocates for inmates have long criticized Massachusetts prison officials for sending too many inmates into solitary confinement and keeping them there too long. They now hope the federal investigation will lead to systemic reforms within the prison system, which has nearly 8,800 inmates.

Patricia DeJuneas, a Boston-based attorney, said she and her law partner, Ashley Allen, spoke at length with an investigator last week about their client, a 27-year-old inmate who spent seven months in isolation at Souza Baranowski Correctional Center after he filed a complaint that a correction officer sexually assaulted him.

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The inmate’s health deteriorated sharply during his time in solitary, and he was begging prison officials for his release, DeJuneas said.

“Unfortunately, the Department of Correction routinely fails to protect the prisoners in its care and routinely takes the word of correction officers over prisoners, even when all the evidence is to the contrary,” she said.

“Individual complaints are ignored, or worse, DOC staff retaliates against those prisoners who dare to complain . . . the DOJ investigation is really the only shot to get out what’s been going on.”

Patricia Quintilian, an attorney in Northampton who represents a 56-year-old inmate with liver cancer, said she spoke with a federal investigator two weeks ago about an incident involving her client. During one of her visits with him, she said, he was handcuffed so tightly by a correction officer that his hands began to swell.

“I was outraged,” Quintilian said, adding that many other inmates do not have lawyers to speak for them. “The unrepresented inmates get treated worse.”

In 2018, the state enacted changes to the criminal justice system that included restrictions on solitary confinement. Prison officials have said they have been curtailing the use of segregation, saying it is now limited to those inmates whose behavior makes them a danger to themselves or others.

But critics dispute that assertion. Prison officials have reduced the time in solitary each day by just one hour, to 21 hours daily, instead of 22, they said, and new regulations for reviewing the status of prisoners in solitary have stalled.

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This is not the first time the Massachusetts prison system is facing scrutiny from US Attorney Andrew Lelling, who previously worked in Justice Department’s civil rights division.

In March 2018, Lelling told state prison officials in a letter that federal prosecutors were investigating whether the correction department had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by forcing incoming inmates who had been taking medications for addiction to stop the drugs once behind bars.

In the current investigation, prosecutors based in Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts have been calling lawyers across the state to discuss their clients.

Ruth Greenberg, a lawyer who specializes in post-conviction releases, said the investigator she spoke with wanted to speak with her clients in prison.

“They were interested in talking to everybody,” Greenberg said of the investigators. “Those of us concerned about how the department of correction treats vulnerable prisoners, and all prisoners are vulnerable, are happy to see federal oversight.”

Greenberg said she told investigators about two clients: one inmate in his 50s recovering from cancer who relies on a wheelchair, and an inmate who has one lung, kidney disease, and has to wear a diaper and use a walker.

After both men requested compassionate release, the department retaliated against them, Greenberg said. One patient lost access to his wheelchair-accessible cell and was punished with segregation for refusing to crawl into his new cell, she said. The other was accused of being in a fight, a charge that has made it more difficult for him to be granted release, Greenberg said.

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“You would be surprised how many of the sick are punished,” she said.

Inmate advocates said they are hopeful but wary that the investigation will bring about substantive change.

“Whatever the DOJ decides, they’re fighting the Department of Correction, this huge mammoth thing,” Quintilian said. Prison officials “are not going to want to fix things.”


Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.