Describing instances ranging from tasing to denial of attorney contact, advocates and lawmakers alleged Monday that correction officers at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley have abused inmates for weeks in response to an assault on three officers.
Tensions have been high at the facility since inmates injured three correction officers in a Jan. 10 attack, a video of which the Department of Correction published.
Since then, groups and family members said Monday, prisoners not involved in the assault have recounted being targeted by officers and tactical teams with tasing, dog attacks, and more during a lockdown.
The department said conditions at the prison are improving after the assault, but outraged advocates — some of whom filed a lawsuit against the Department of Correction — said more needs to be done to prevent inhumane treatment and unconstitutional restrictions.
“Although violence in Souza has been a problem for a very long time, I want to underscore this is not normal. This is quite unprecedented,” Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said at a press conference. “What we’re seeing is by all accounts retaliation.”
The Department of Correction did not say if the lockdown had formally been lifted, but said general visits will likely resume this week. Inmates have also been gaining access to showers, phones, emails and recreation since the lockdown started, according to the department.
A DOC spokesman did not reply to questions about the number of injuries or whether any correction officer had been disciplined amid the alleged retaliation.
“Operations at Souza-Baranowski are returning to normal following serious assaults on correctional officers,” spokesman Jason Dobson said in a statement. “While some privileges have been restricted and some inmates were moved as staff searched the maximum security facility for weapons and other contraband, this process was necessary to prevent further violence. Every effort was made to provide attorneys with reasonable access to their clients as soon as safety and security were restored.”
Little information is publicly available about the scope of the alleged crackdown.
Matos said PLS has a list of more than 100 inmates “who are known to have been assaulted, attempted suicide or suffered medical complications as a result of the lockdown.”
Representatives from the group have personally visited four inmates hospitalized as a result of alleged correction officer assaults and one who attempted suicide amid the conditions, she said, and there were six reports of dog bites in the prison.
A group of lawmakers led by Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat whose district includes the prison, spent six hours at the facility Sunday speaking to 15 inmates — an ability lawmakers have by statute — who shared stories of assault or other intimidating behavior in the wake of the assault, according to the legislators.
Some inmates, Eldridge said, told lawmakers that tactical riot officers entered their cells and aimed pepper spray guns at their heads or pointed tasers at their crotches. Rep. Mike Connolly, who also participated, said one inmate reported not being subjected to violence but having his religious texts confiscated and never returned.
“The inmates that we met with were not in the unit where there were attacks by inmates on a few correction officers,” Eldridge said. “They were either in solitary confinement or knew nothing about the attack or they were in other units on the entire other side of the prison, which has a north and a south side. The frustration I heard from inmates was, ‘Why are we being punished for something we’re not involved at all with?’”
Three speakers at Monday’s press conference described being cut off from contact with incarcerated family members or friends for weeks after the Jan. 10 attack. Once they were able to get in touch, they said, their loved ones shared harrowing stories of mistreatment and violence.
Sindey Hayes said her brother, Tony Gaskins, watched an inmate get attacked by dogs released into his cell and tased by officers. “He was definitely scared,” Hayes recounted of her phone call with her brother. “He said, ‘I might die in here. I might. They’re just randomly attacking people.’”
Several legal and prisoners’ rights groups said inmates were also prohibited from contacting their attorneys for at least two weeks after the lockdown started.
The Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Committee for Public Counsel Services filed a lawsuit against the state and officials at the prison last Friday, alleging the limit on attorney communication is unconstitutional.
“Our clients were denied right to counsel for a period of more than two weeks,” said Victoria Kelleher, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “We still, to this day, are being denied insofar as our clients can’t really effectively access their lawyers because they don’t have the phone time to be able to call us, they don’t have their legal paperwork, so sometimes they don’t have our phone numbers.”
The Department declined to comment on the suit Monday.
“The Department of Correction has not yet received this lawsuit, and does not comment on pending litigation,” Dobson said. “We will, however, vigorously defend all actions and decisions necessary to maintain the safety of staff, inmates, and visitors at the Commonwealth’s only maximum security prison.”
Asked Monday about the situation, Gov. Charlie Baker said the department is investigating allegations but that he would not “speak to the specifics of what is now a legal matter.”
“After the incident at Souza where three correctional officers were severely injured, people went through a process of redetermining status for basically everybody in the facility,” Baker, who visited the injured officers after the incident, said. “They did that because they wanted to make sure that inmates and officers would be safe once they open it up again.”
Baker did not answer directly when asked if he believed an outside investigation was warranted, replying that there is a process in place for pursuing an investigation and that he has “a lot of faith in the department and the actions it’s taken to ensure that inmates and correctional officers at Souza are safe.”
The union has argued since the assault that the 2018 criminal justice reform law, which limited the use of solitary confinement among a range of other changes, precipitated the attack and the rise in violence.
In a Monday statement, the union said its officers “conduct themselves in a professional manner day in and day out in some of the most dangerous environments imaginable” and deferred other comment to the DOC.
Advocates pushed back on claims about the criminal justice reform law and about the conditions at Souza-Baranowski, replying Monday that while conditions may be dangerous, officers contribute to it by inflicting violence on inmates.
“What is more disturbing is the fact that there has been a perverse attempt to attribute these attacks or these conditions to the achievements that we made through criminal law reform last year,” said Rahsaan Hall, racial justice program director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
Connolly said the DOC commissioner and the prison superintendent expressed a desire to improve conditions when meeting Sunday with the contingent of lawmakers. However, Connolly said he believes the response has not gone far enough to protect inmates.
Like many advocates who spoke at the press conference, Connolly criticized the union for linking criminal justice reforms to an increase in violence.
“I find it incredibly disturbing and discouraging that the correction officers’ union appears to be actively advocating against the moderate criminal justice reforms we enacted into law,” Connolly told the News Service. “I think it raises a lot of concerns about what the intentions are when they seem to be so determined to speak out against some of the modest reforms we tried to introduce.”