Lawyers Allege Prisoner Mistreatment Continues At Souza-Baranowski Correctional CenterPlay
The fallout continues over the violence that erupted at Massachusetts' maximum security prison almost nine months ago.
After a weeks-long lockdown, a lawsuit and lawmaker visits to the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, some say prisoners are still being mistreated and prison officials have retaliated against those who've complained.
In response to a public records request, Attorney Patty DeJuneas recently received dozens of grievances that prisoners filed in the weeks after the Jan. 10 violence. The incident — in which inmates attacked guards and three officers were hurt — prompted an institutional search of the prison and many of the more than 600 men incarcerated at Souza were moved to different areas of the facility.
Several grievances describe a similar scene during the search. Some prisoners wrote that they were beaten, tasered or threatened. Several men described tactical officers moving them into a hallway — handcuffed and dressed in boxer shorts and T-shirts — and being told to kneel while facing a wall as cells were searched.
"The ones that DOC did provide me show a campaign of retaliation, of beatings, of using dogs against prisoners and using chemical agents and tasers. Men who don't know each other on different cell blocks are alleging very similar things."Attorney Patty DeJuneas
The Department of Correction has denied any abuse, but said it needed to take strong action at Souza because it learned that prisoners were planning more violence.
DeJuneas says the grievances show a pattern of what happened in the weeks after the guards were assaulted.
"The ones that DOC did provide me show a campaign of retaliation, of beatings, of using dogs against prisoners and using chemical agents and tasers," DeJuneas said. "Men who don't know each other on different cell blocks are alleging very similar things."
The grievance reports indicate that most of them were denied, some note they were referred to internal affairs. DeJuneas alleges that some of the men who complained were later targeted.
"They have been charged with disciplinary offenses," DeJuneas said. "They've been referred for criminal prosecution. They are still being retaliated against. Their legal papers are being taken away."
The legal papers were a key issue in a lawsuit filed against the DOC over the search — claiming it was unconstitutional for the department to restrict prisoners access to their documents. In February, Judge Beverly Cannone ruled that the DOC response to the violence was "exaggerated." She ordered the DOC to return the prisoners legal paperwork and give them sufficient time to communicate with their lawyers.
In its February testimony, DOC officials described the Jan. 10 violence as an attack on guards that was "deliberate, vicious and gang-related." Souza-Baranowski Superintendent Stephen Kenneway testified that the prison was locked down and a tactical team conducted a prison-wide search in January for contraband. He also said the prisoners were moved in an effort to maintain order. Kenneway said the prisoners legal paperwork was returned and attorney visits were reinstated.
Over the summer, attorneys filed a contempt charge against the DOC, alleging it was not complying with Cannone's order to return prisoners' possessions.
One of the prisoners who testified against the DOC is DeJuneas' client Robert Silva-Prentice. He alleged that he was beaten and tasered by correction officers during the search. Shortly after he testified in February, Silva-Prentice was charged with assaulting a correction officer during the January search.
During his disciplinary hearing on those charges last month, DeJuneas presented photos that she took indicating that Silva-Prentice was tasered on his back, not on the front of his torso as the officers claimed. She also played footage from the day Silva-Prentice is accused of assaulting an officer. The footage was taken from a prison hallway. It's difficult to make out exactly what's happening inside the cells, but dogs are clearly heard barking and someone — who DeJuneas says is Silva-Prentice's cell mate — is yelling out.
"What you can hear in certain points is at least two dogs barking furiously," DeJuneas said. "Then the dogs quiet down and you hear a human being howling in pain. And it wasn't until the second time that I listened to it that I realized that those noises were coming from a person and not an animal."
DeJuneas says some of the charges against Silva-Prentice were dropped, but she is appealing the assault charge that was upheld. One of the claims in the appeal is that the officer Silva-Prentice is accused of assaulting was not identified.
After the violence in January, several state lawmakers made unannounced visits to Souza and called for reforms. State Sen. Jamie Eldridge was among them. He says he tried to attend Silva-Prentice's disciplinary hearing in September, but prison officials told him that his attendance would violate policy.
"I was told that my being there, at the hearing as a legislator, could impact the integrity of the investigation and ... the regulation does not allow me to attend, which I strongly disagree with," Eldridge said.
Eldridge has asked the DOC to explain its policies in writing and says he's continuing to look into how the violence at Souza was handled.
"We really need to hear from prisoners, we need to hear more from correction officers, and we just need more information from the DOC about what happened during an extremely disturbing period of time," he said.
In a statement, the DOC says Eldridge was granted access to the prison but disciplinary hearings are not open to the public. The statement also says the DOC does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.
Another lawsuit over Souza may be coming. Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts Executive Director Elizabeth Matos says 53% of the brutality complaints that her group has received since February are from prisoners at Souza.
"Souza-Baranowski had its issues before this happened," Matos said. "There's very little access to programming and that was a major source of the problems there. The culture there and the environment certainly had something to do with the violence and that certainly doesn't seem to have changed very much."
Advocates asked the governor, attorney general and U.S. Attorney for an independent investigation of the prison. Legislation calling for more independent oversight of state correctional facilities is stalled on Beacon Hill.
This segment aired on October 5, 2020.