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A group of Massachusetts lawmakers made a surprise visit to the state's maximum security prison over the weekend amid allegations that prisoners are being beaten and abused by officers in retaliation for last month's attack on correction officers.
The five lawmakers spent several hours at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in northern central Mass. Sunday to talk about reports that correction officers are retaliating against the prisoners following the Jan. 10 attack that hurt three officers.
They met with prison officials, prisoners and Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici.
"The allegations are very serious, and it was important for us to make our presence known," said state Rep. Mike Connolly. "We as legislators are concerned, and we want to see that people are treated humanely and appropriately."
Connolly and state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who also was at Souza Sunday, said most of the abuse allegations involved officers with so-called "tactical teams" that were brought to the prison in response to the last month's violent incident. Those teams are comprised of correction officers from around the state.
WBUR spoke with a man who has been incarcerated at Souza for about a year and a half. His name is not being used out of concern for his safety. In the first week after the violence, the prisoner said men were locked in their cells almost constantly. About 11 days after the violence broke out last month, he said officers in tactical gear ordered dozens of men to remove most of their clothing, moved the prisoners to cells in a different part of the prison and took away their personal belongings.
"They literally took all of our clothes off, stripped us to our underwear and shackled and cuffed us and beat us up," he told WBUR. "Officers just started tasering me, beating me, punching me, calling me the N-word. And I went to the outside hospital," he said. "I got stitches across my face. I have a black eye, busted lip, and my hands are still shaking."
The group Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts said it has interviewed about 40 men incarcerated there who have similar complaints. The group also heard from attorneys who said access to their clients has been restricted since Jan. 10 — although they were recently allowed limited no-contact visits.
"Targeting the prison as a whole through collective punishment is not only an ineffective strategy to shape behavior, it's criminal," said defense attorney Lisa Newman-Polk, who represents a client incarcerated at Souza and worked there as a mental health clinician. "This requires full investigation by an outside party."
A group of attorneys filed suit against the Department of Correction (DOC) late Friday, alleging that the prisoners' constitutional rights are being violated because they cannot appropriately meet with legal counsel. The suit seeks a preliminary injunction and alleged the DOC is denying prisoners access to their lawyers and legal materials. The suit also alleged that prisoners have been abused since the violence last month. It was filed by the state public defender agency and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"Targeting the prison as a whole through collective punishment is not only an ineffective strategy to shape behavior, it's criminal. This requires full investigation by an outside party."Lisa Newman-Polk, defense attorney
"What we're asking for in the lawsuit is for [prisoners] to be able to get their paperwork back, to be able to make attorney phone calls and for them to be able to have contact visits with their attorneys so we can have meaningful discussions," said attorney Rebecca Jacobstein, with the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
On Sunday, attorney Kathryn Karczewska-Ohren went to Souza, which is located in Lancaster, to visit her client, Robert Silva-Prentice. He's one of three prisoners named in the lawsuit. She's working on the appeal of his conviction, which she said is on hold because it's been difficult to communicate with her client — even during no-contact visits.
"Normally, you're in a room, and they understand what they're doing and they're doing it voluntarily," Karczewska-Ohren said. "He's in semi-darkness, it's hard to hear. It's very impaired communication."
She said Silva-Prentice told her several officers came into his cell, beat him and tased him, yelling " 'you don't run this place, we do.' "
The correction officers union said the reports of abuse are false. Kevin Flanagan, with the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, said tactical officers are going through Souza and helping reassess the prison's operational needs after the violence. He said the prisoners are strip-searched now because of safety concerns. Disputing the prisoners' allegations of abuse, Flanagan added he hopes lawmakers who visited Sunday heard from both prisoners and officers.
"These inmates make allegations because honestly they don't want to conform to the rules inside prison. They couldn't conform to the rules outside in society. Now they're inside a prison where, yes, their freedoms were taken away because they committed a crime," Flanagan said. "I've heard the rumors, the allegations, and it's nonsense. I also know that inmates have thrown bodily fluids, excrement at officers. These are bad guys. There's a reason why they're at Souza-Baranowski."
Flanagan said there are problems at the prison because it needs about 70 more correction officers to be fully staffed.
"... I've heard the rumors, the allegations, and it's nonsense. ... These are bad guys. There's a reason why they're at Souza-Baranowski."Kevin Flanagan, with the corrections officers union
The Department of Correction issued a statement Sunday saying things at Souza are getting back to normal. The DOC statement said, "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.”
Loved ones of those incarcerated at Souza, prisoners advocates and lawmakers held a press conference at the State House Monday to talk about what they’ve heard from those inside the prison. Several family members said they’ve heard allegations of beating, abuse and retaliation for last month’s violence against correction officers.
“This scares me,” said Sindey Hayes, whose brother is incarcerated at Souza. “I’ve never heard my brother scared before. He’s in danger.”
“We have over 100 names of people who say they have been assaulted, attempted suicide or have now have medical complications from abuse,” said Liz Matos, with Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. “Although violence at Souza has been a problem for a long time, this is unprecedented.”
State Sen. Eldridge said the Baker administration needs to change the way state prisons are run.
“I’m calling on the governor and the Department of Correction to change the approach toward interacting with prisoners at Souza Baranowski and really all prisons,” Eldridge said. “If there is just a punishment approach, I don’t see how that is going to reduce violence in any prison.”
Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters at the State House Monday that he can’t speak specifically about what is now a legal matter, but he said the DOC took steps to ensure the safety of both prisoners and correction officers, and any incidents are investigated. He added that the state has expanded prison programming and the department will cooperate with any further investigation.
“There is a process in place for pursuing an investigation," he said. "The [DOC] will collaborate and cooperate with whatever people want to pursue on that,” Baker said. “But I have a lot of faith in the department and in the actions it’s taken to ensure that inmates and correctional officers at Souza are safe."
The prisoner at Souza who spoke with WBUR said he realizes he is risking more punishment by speaking with media but said he wants people to understand.
"If we can't be heard and our story can't be told, then there is only one story that's put out there, and it's a false narrative that we're all savages, we're animals and we don't have nothing. It's hopeless," the man said. "It's the environment. Punishment met with more punishment doesn't bring anything except more violence."
Eldridge said more lawmakers are expected to visit additional prisons this week.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of clients that Lisa Newman-Polk represents who are incarcerated at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. It has been updated to reflect that she represents one.
This segment aired on February 2, 2020.
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