At a Suffolk Superior Court hearing on Feb. 10 on allegations of abuse against incarcerated individuals at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, criminal defense lawyers and the Department of Corrections painted starkly different pictures of the conditions at the maximum security prison.
Judge Beverly Cannone scheduled an evidentiary hearing for Thursday, citing additional affidavits describing the abuse of those incarcerated at the prison that conflict with the Department of Corrections’ response to the lawsuit, WBUR reports.
Incarcerated individuals at the maximum security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley are suing prison personnel, claiming that guards violated their rights and physically assaulted them over a period of weeks after a fight left three guards injured on Jan. 10. The complaint also alleges that employees of the prison did not allow the incarcerated to access their attorneys, and confiscated all belongings including legal paperwork, violating their right to legal counsel.
The suit was filed on Jan. 31 by three incarcerated persons with the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and also alleges physical abuse took place, including incarcerated individuals being beaten and tased by prison guards, bitten by dogs, and isolated in solitary confinement.
The plaintiffs seek a preliminary injunction requiring the prison to return legal paperwork to those who are incarcerated, give sufficient time to make phone calls outside their cells during the day and allow contact visits with lawyers.
The suit also asks for the prison to be required in the future to seek court approval for any limits on phone calls between lawyers and incarcerated clients longer than two days.
According to a motion filed by the Department of Corrections at Suffolk Superior Court on Feb. 7, legal paperwork has already been returned to incarcerated persons, and calls and meetings with lawyers are now permitted. The motion described the prison’s decision to block access to lawyers and confiscate legal documents as “necessary to prevent further violence,” and characterized the lockdown restrictions on incarcerated individuals’ movements as the prison following established “disorder protocol.”
Victoria Kelleher, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit and the President of Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that lawyers were prevented from speaking or meeting with their clients in the prison for weeks, violating the incarcerated individuals’ constitutional right to counsel.
“I have never seen any situation where lawyers were totally precluded from seeing their clients for anything more than a few hours or a day. Here we have a situation where it went on for more than two weeks,” said Kelleher, who said that incarcerated persons reported choosing between calling their lawyer, contacting a family member, or showering in 15 minutes of permitted time outside their cells per day.
Incarcerated individuals who had not memorized their lawyer’s phone number have no way to contact their representation in the allotted time, according to Kelleher. Kelleher said that a number of separate lawsuits will be filed in the future related to the allegations of violence by guards in the prison, and that her organization is concerned for the safety of incarcerated persons named as plaintiffs in the suits or who self-identified as suffering abuse.
After the incident on Jan.10, the facility “went into lockdown and prisoners started being kept in basically what amounted to solitary confinement,” though those suspected of involvement with the fight were relocated immediately following the incident, according to State Representative Mike Connolly, one of five state lawmakers who made an unannounced visit to the prison on Feb. 2 following the filing.
Connolly described the situation at Souza-Baranowski as “one of the most severe and prolonged lockdowns of a maximum security prison in the state in decades.”
Incarcerated individuals described abuse to at the hands of a Tactical Team newly introduced to the prison to enforce the lockdown to Connolly during the lawmakers’ visit. The Tactical Team’s members do not wear name tags, and their unfamiliar faces and lack of identification make it difficult for the incarcerated individuals to know who is committing acts of abuse and file formal reports or complaints, according to Connolly’s account.
Incarcerated people and advocates have also raised concerns about the mental health status of the prison’s population. The advocacy group Prisoners’ Legal Services has joined in a public records request with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts to determine the number of attempted suicides at the prison, and the number of inmates requiring medical treatment at hospitals outside the prison in the past two months.
“We heard from prisoners that there were six or seven suicide attempts taking place each day,” said Connolly. “The Superintendent confirmed to us that there was no way they were able to keep up with all the reports of mental health crisis.”
Aaron Hernandez, the former Patriots player convicted of murdering Odin Lloyd, died by suicide in the prison in 2017.
“Lack of access to healthcare, including mental health care, is a major concern,” said Kelleher. “There certainly is a lot of concern that’s being reported from the men who are incarcerated about their conditions, and their fear of retaliation, or of continued abuse.”
The Massachusetts Department of Corrections has been criticized in the past by activists and criminal defense lawyers for its use of “disciplinary segregation,” which has been found to exacerbate mental illness. In 2018 Governor Charlie Baker signed the Criminal Justice Reform Act into law, which among other provisions created new restrictions on solitary confinement in state prisons, and requires regular hearings to determine if an incarcerated person should remain in solitary confinement.
The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union blamed the reforms for the violence the guards experienced in a statement released the day of the fight, claiming that the law “has allowed inmates to manipulate the system and engage in violent action, increased gang activity, intimidation, and assaults on officers and other inmates.” All three guards involved suffered concussions and bruises; injuries also included broken bones and a fractured spine, according to the Union. One guard required surgery. The prison posted the video online of the Jan. 10 altercation later the same day.
Prisoners’ Legal Services called the claim “wrong and irresponsible” in a responding statement, and said that the reforms were “designed to improve conditions for staff and prisoners alike.”
Lawmakers have expressed concern that the Department of Corrections has not put the changes required by the 2018 act into place. Connolly said the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union’s blame of the reforms makes him wonder if “a faithful enough effort is being made to implement criminal justice reforms in the way that we [as lawmakers] intended.” Connolly also mentioned that the Superintendent “stressed to us that he’s doing what he can to run the facility in a dignified way.” The DOC said in a statement that all facilities including Souza-Baranowski meet the new standards outlined in the 2018 act, according to WBUR.
“I think the bottom line is that there needs to be an independent investigation as well as additional oversight into what’s going on there,” said Connolly.