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Legislators, advocates call for Mass. prison reforms after Spotlight investigation into excessive force allegations

By Mark Arsenault | Aug 16, 2021

State lawmakers are calling for greater scrutiny of the Massachusetts Department of Correction, after a Boston Globe Spotlight story on Sunday highlighted a raft of excessive force allegations by prisoners at the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center during and shortly after a lockdown in early 2020.

“Having been to Souza during the lockdown and seen the dog bites and taser marks with my own eyes, I am not surprised by this article,” said state Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, a Northampton Democrat, in a social media post. “I am dismayed to see the DOC put in writing that legislators should be ignored, and even more dismayed that the Governor chose not to comment.”

Governor Charlie Baker’s office declined on Monday to respond to comments from legislators or to questions from the Globe about whether the governor believes there should be an independent investigation into the numerous abuse allegations from Souza in early 2020.

The Spotlight story, “The Taking of Cell 15,” investigated a spike of excessive force complaints by Souza prisoners that occurred after four correction officers were hurt in an assault by about 20 prisoners in the facility’s N1 unit on Jan. 10, 2020. Men incarcerated at Souza allege that authorities orchestrated a wave of violent retaliation on prisoners not involved in that attack.

The Spotlight story focused on abuse complaints and injuries of two Souza prisoners, Dionisio Paulino and Robert Silva-Prentice, who say they were beaten by a Department of Correction tactical team on Jan. 22, 2020. Prison security video obtained by the Globe shows that Paulino was mauled by a DOC patrol dog while handcuffed, in his underwear, and under escort by two tactical officers. Officers later claimed Paulino antagonized the dog by trying to kick it, which Paulino denies. Reports from at least four officers who witnessed the events contained false allegations that Paulino broke free of the escort officers.

State Representative Liz Miranda, a Boston Democrat, said she has a loved one currently incarcerated, and as a legislator has met with hundreds of incarcerated constituents. “I can say that this report highlights what we already know to be true: Inhumane treatment and abuse does happen in the Massachusetts DOC, one of the only state agencies with minimal oversight and almost complete autonomy,” she said in a statement.

“We should establish uniform standards in use of force and increase transparency, end solitary confinement practices, reduce the incarcerated population as public health professionals have outlined, and strengthen compassionate release and medical parole through an independent ombudsman program that already should have begun its work,” Miranda said.

The Legislature created the ombudsman position, but the administration has not filled it.

State Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat and Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee, said that he was “deeply disturbed by the treatment of incarcerated people in our state prisons, but sadly I am not at all surprised.”

In a statement, he said that “Despite the criminal justice reform law of 2018, and good faith efforts by some [Executive Office of Public Safety and Security] and DOC officials, the harsh truth is that from the top, Governor Baker has consistently slowed down or delayed reforms . . . I believe it is time for the Judiciary Committee to hold the Baker-Polito administration accountable and get some answers, to ensure that the corrections system is improved for everyone.”

The Spotlight story also reported that then-public safety secretary Thomas Turco told staff members in a January 2020 e-mail that Eldridge, a prominent DOC critic, “is to be ignored from here on out.” Turco retired in July.

State Representative Michael Day, a Stoneham Democrat and co-chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said in an e-mail: “This story, particularly the conflicting nature of the reports offered by those involved, is concerning to say the least. Before this was published, I had been working steadily — with the support of the speaker and my colleagues in the House, and in partnership with my Senate co-chair — to ensure that the administration implements all aspects of the criminal justice reform law that we passed and that the governor himself signed into law.”

The sweeping 2018 criminal justice reform included measures intended to reduce the numbers of people ensnared in the criminal justice system, change how the state treated young offenders, and provide new oversight for the use of solitary confinement, the Globe reported at the time.

Day said legislators are “in the active process of determining whether the administration has implemented all of these provisions, and, if so, how.”

In a phone interview on Monday, Sabadosa said she was not satisfied with the pace of prison reforms, and cited as an example the unfilled position of independent ombudsman.

State senator and gubernatorial candidate Sonia Chang-Díaz said in a statement: “This new report is chilling, but not surprising. Across the Commonwealth, far too many people — and let’s be real: it’s disproportionately Black and brown people — are incarcerated in toxic conditions that place their health, safety, and human dignity, and the safety of the communities to which they will return, at risk. The criminal justice system is in desperate need of systemic changes at every stage.”

Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said that “Our Constitution is designed to protect citizens from government-imposed punishment that is cruel and unusual, and that includes incarcerated individuals in the care of the state. But as public defenders and our clients can tell you — what happens at Souza is cruel, brutal, and far from what should be allowed.”

In a statement, Benedetti said “the correctional system and this facility in particular are in need of serious reform to prevent the cruelty that has become commonplace. It has been said that a society can be judged by entering its prisons. What does this incident and the untold atrocities that happen at Souza say about who we are in Massachusetts?”

Former DOC commissioner Kathleen Dennehy said allegations of abuse and cover-up at Souza during early 2020 underscore problems that have long been endemic within the agency.

“This has gone on for far too long,” said Dennehy, who pushed for an overhaul during her tenure running DOC between late 2003 and mid-2007, and is now an independent federal court monitor charged with holding accountable prison agencies that are sued for civil rights violations by the Department of Justice. “There needs to be a long-term solution. There needs to be some institutionalized, permanent independent oversight and accountability. We need to have an independent ombudsman who does not answer to anyone.”

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