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The ‘crackdown’ in state prisons shows why reform is urgently needed

The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley.
The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Elizabeth Matos spends a lot of time thinking about what’s going on within the Massachusetts prison system. And when she’s as worried as she is about what’s going on inside its walls, we should probably all be concerned.

In the weeks since a trio of guards were attacked at the state prison in Shirley, tensions have risen to a high alert. Lawyers have described having less access to clients; family visits have been disrupted or curtailed; and, anecdotally, inmates — including those who had nothing to do with the attack — have faced severe punishment from prison officials.

The Globe reported on this alarming state of affairs on Saturday. But Matos, the head of the respected advocacy group Prisoners’ Legal Services, has been sounding the alarm on conditions in the prison for weeks.

The crackdown has come in the wake of a Jan. 10 incident at the prison in which a group of inmates surrounded and severely assaulted a correctional officer, according to DOC officials. That officer and two others who came to his aid were taken to a nearby hospital.

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The DOC said shortly after the Jan. 10 incident that six inmates had been “removed from the unit.” So far, no criminal charges have been filed against any inmates in the attack.

Matos said her organization regularly receives reports of violence from the prison in Shirley.

“It’s been a very violent place with a number of problems,” Matos told me recently. “It’s a very toxic culture there. We track assaults at all prisons in terms of what’s reported to us. Souza always has, by far, the highest number of assaults on prisoners.”

She’s referring to Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison adjacent to MCI-Shirley. It houses some of the state’s most difficult and dangerous prisoners. But they, too, are entitled to basic rights behind bars. What’s more, there’s no evidence that “crackdowns” do anything to make prisons safer. They just heighten what are already fraught conditions.

To Matos, the crackdown in Shirley is part of a broader problem: a culture within the state’s Department of Correction that is fiercely resistant to change. In the wake of the incident in January, the union that represents correctional officers was quick to point the finger at prison reforms for supposedly making their jobs more dangerous.

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Passage of the landmark Criminal Justice reform law in 2018 was supposed to lead to substantial improvements in the way Massachusetts prisons operate. The state was finally supposed to adopt some of the innovative practices of other states, beginning with a greatly reduced reliance on the barbaric practice of solitary confinement.

But instead of implementing those reforms, the Baker administration has worked overtime to find clever ways around them. And, sure enough, solitary confinement has been pointed to by advocates as one of the primary weapons in cracking down on prisoners in the past few weeks. (Solitary confinement is defined, technically, as confinement to one’s cell for 23 hours a day or more.)

But the most outrageous reports may be the allegations of reduced contact with attorneys. The right to legal representation is among the most basic, and you don’t have that if your attorney can’t communicate with you.

It’s a fact that there is a documented history of violence between guards and inmates at the prison in Shirley. But prison officials shouldn’t get to declare war on prisoners after an isolated episode of violence.

As the Legislature has come to realize, Massachusetts prisons are in dire need of change, one in which prisoners are treated with more humanity. If prison guards think abusing prisoners is the way to teach them a lesson, it’s time for their bosses — starting with the governor — to pull rank.

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Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. E-mail him at adrian.walker@globe.com.