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Collective Punishment At A Massachusetts Prison

A culture of violence and resistance to reform in the corrections department set the stage for a recent lockdown

Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center Justin Kase Conder for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On Jan. 10, there was a disturbance at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts. Multiple corrections officers were injured and prison officials described an assault by incarcerated men. The men alleged to have been involved in the assault were transferred. Media outlets reported that as of earlier this month, none of them had been charged in connection with the incident.

A few days after the disturbance, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts issued a press release that made three points. First, the effort by the correctional officers’ union to blame criminal justice reforms from 2018 for a violent climate at the prison was dishonest and counterproductive. Second, very little had actually changed since the passage of the reforms because of resistance from the corrections department. And finally, the “violent climate” at the prison included “more assaults on prisoners at Souza-Baranowski than any other prison or jail in Massachusetts”—violence that attracted no condemnation from the correctional officers’ union.

The resistance to reform, culture of violence at the prison, and a turn to collective punishment characterized the weeks that followed, according to incarcerated people, their lawyers, and state lawmakers who made unannounced visits to the facility.

In 2018, Massachusetts passed a slate of criminal justice reforms. Among them was a measure to guarantee due process to people placed in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day or longer. The law, modest as it was, was meant to curb the use of isolation and eliminate it entirely for people with mental health conditions.

In the time since then, close observers of the system have said the state has, instead of implementing the restrictions on solitary, gone out of its way to undermine them. Last February, Adrian Walker, a columnist for the Boston Globe, wrote: “The Department of Correction has instituted changes that are widely viewed as an end run around the new law, policies that allow for 21 hours a day of solitary confinement rather than 22. Regulations for reviewing the status of prisoners in solitary have stalled.”

Thousands are affected. Walker wrote: “While data on solitary confinement has historically been spotty, the Department of Correction reported to the Legislature last year that roughly 3,200 inmates had spent time in solitary in the first six months of the year. (A follow-up report has not been released yet.) More than 200 of those inmates were placed in solitary for two months or more.”

A few months later, in July, Shira Schoenberg of reported that, rather than working to implement the new law, the Department of Correction was engaged in an effort to “hamstring an oversight committee with restrictive regulations that would limit members’ ability to visit prisons and bar them from speaking to the press.” The restrictions would effectively “place a gag order” on committee members.

The same month, the Boston Globe editorial board described the department’s new rules as “embarrassing for a state that was once a leader in prison reform.” It highlighted the department’s decision to create units where people would be locked in cells for 21, rather than 22, hours a day. “By renaming the units and insisting that only whatever remains of truly ‘restrictive units’ comes under the committee’s purview makes its role virtually meaningless,” the editorial board wrote.

In the wake of the lockdown at Souza-Baranowski, incarcerated people, lawmakers, and lawyers have drawn attention to prison officials’ punitive response. Some state lawmakers, who heard accounts of abuse at the facility, were concerned enough to make unannounced visits, with the first on Feb. 3. What they found deeply concerned them. On a follow-up visit on Feb. 7, lawmakers spoke with around 30 men incarcerated at the prison. One of the representatives told “We talked to so many. We saw Taser burns. We saw dog bites. We saw so much evidence of suicide attempts: cut wrists, ligature marks.”

One man held at Souza-Baranowski spoke with the local radio station WBUR. ”They literally took all of our clothes off, stripped us to our underwear and shackled and cuffed us and beat us up,” he told the station. “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.”

Elizabeth Matos, with Prisoners’ Legal Services, told WBUR that the organization has over 100 names of people who say they have been assaulted, have tried to kill themselves, or now have medical complications from abuse.  “Although violence at Souza has been a problem for a long time,” she said, “this is unprecedented.”

The Committee for Public Counsel Services (the state indigent defense provider) and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have filed a lawsuit on behalf of three named plaintiffs, men at Souza-Baranowski, alleging a denial of access to counsel. “Currently, prisoners have only 15 minutes out of their cells each day to call their attorneys, and there is no guarantee that this time is during business hours, and has to be weighed against other basic needs, such as showering,” argue the plaintiffs.

None of this is new, according to Prisoners’ Legal Services. Prior to the January lockdown, interviews with people held at Souza-Baranowski had revealed “a clear pattern of collective and harsh punishment of all for the misconduct of a few and arbitrary retaliation from officers such as withholding food and unjustifiably confiscating personal property such as family photos and letters,” according to the organization’s Jan. 13 statement. And 24-hour lockdowns were common.

The barrier to improving conditions for incarcerated people and those employed at the prison, according to the organization, “is not the recent passage of evidence-based reforms like those that have been successful in dozens of other prisons and jails. Rather it is the refusal to change and to believe that those in the Commonwealth’s custody are not animals, but, in fact, are as human as the correctional officers who work there.”