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New court filings indicate feds are investigating alleged retaliation at Mass. max security prison

The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts, photographed in 2017. (Elise Amendola/AP)
The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts, photographed in 2017. (Elise Amendola/AP)

New court filings suggest federal prosecutors are investigating allegations of brutality and retaliation against prisoners after a 2020 attack on officers at Massachusetts' maximum security prison.

The disclosure, part of a new motion in a related civil rights lawsuit, says a federal grand jury has been calling witnesses to testify on how the state Department of Correction responded to the attack on officers at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.

Such an investigation by the Justice Department raises the prospect that state officials could face criminal charges over their response to the prison violence in January of 2020. The role of a federal grand jury is to determine whether there is probable cause a crime was committed.

The grand jury has been investigating for at least a year, according to Patty DeJuneas, a lawyer representing one of the prisoners. "My client testified and I know other prisoners who testified," she said. "So I feel pretty confident that at least what happened to my client is under investigation."

The related civil suit was filed in 2021 by two prisoners who say they were not involved in the attack on correction officers but still were brutalized in the alleged retaliation. They claim that special teams of officers were called in and "engaged in a violent retaliatory campaign against all prisoners," using tasers, chemical agents and dogs to intimidate the men in custody.

The two prisoners allege they were beaten in so-called "Cell 15," out of range of prison security cameras, allowing for only limited video documentation of what occurred.

"They — and dozens of other prisoners — suffered violent and retaliatory attacks that were well planned out" by Department of Correction and Souza-Baranowski administrators, the lawsuit said.

The new motion also alleges the Department of Correction has failed to provide all the evidence surrounding its response to the attack because federal investigators are involved.

"Knowledge of a federal grand jury investigating the conduct" does not justify "the withholding of relevant discovery in this civil action," the prisoners' motion said.

The prisoners who filed the suit, Robert Silva-Prentice and Dionisio Paulino, are seeking damages. They name several state officials as defendants in the case. Among them are state Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici, high-ranking officials at Souza-Baranowski and Thomas Turco, former secretary of the state's Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Another group of prisoners has filed a separate federal class-action lawsuit over the way the state handled the violence at Souza.

Grand juries operate in secret. The Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's Office said it does not confirm or deny the existence of a federal grand jury investigation.

Former federal prosecutor Brad Bailey said a grand jury review of the prison incident is significant and could result in criminal indictments against state officials for alleged civil rights violations.

"What it signifies is that there may well be a parallel federal investigation or a primary federal investigation looking at alleged violations of civil rights that would be prosecuted in federal court," Bailey said. "My guess is whatever allegations, whatever evidence has been presented to the U.S. attorney, is being taken very seriously and is being thoroughly vetted."

Documents in the civil suit also mention a deposition from Joe Freitas, retired commander of the Department of Correction's Critical Incident Response Team. That team was part of the group of special correction officers called in after the attack on guards. Freitas testified that Souza officials told his team not to videotape their actions and also gave them a "green light" to do whatever was necessary to ensure control of the prison.

But Freitas testified that his own orders to his team were entirely different: to follow department policies that forbid the use of force as punishment.

"I did say that we do not have a green light," Freitas said in his deposition. He said the staff follows their training and acts within prescribed policy and procedures. "We have worked too hard in the last 20 years to get the Special Operations Division where it is," he said, "and we're not going to go ahead and do things that will bring discredit upon the agency or this team."

The Department of Correction did not respond to requests for comment and typically does not comment on litigation. In previous statements about the events at Souza, the department asserted that the 2020 attack on correction officers was planned — and that it took "swift action to restore order" and prevent more violence. The department has denied any wrongdoing and said that any allegations of staff misconduct are thoroughly investigated.

Recent Department of Correction filings in the civil suit said a federal grand jury investigation is not relevant to the civil litigation. The department's response said it "should not be expected to even be aware of any grand jury investigation," and cast doubt on the assertion that the prisoners' lawyers are "privy to such an investigation and any details thereof."

In the civil lawsuit proceedings, the Department of Correction has complained that the prisoners' request for documents related to the officers' alleged retaliation is overly broad. The department said it has submitted a "colossal" amount of potential evidence, including thousands of pages of documents and more than 200 recorded interviews. It has until the end of May to provide more materials.

The federal grand jury has more time. The statute of limitations to issue indictments is five years from the time an alleged crime occurred.

This segment aired on May 11, 2023.


Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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