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Massachusetts Prisoner PAC Assailed by Governor, DOC

In mid-August, Acting Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci personally directed prison guards to conduct a shakedown of several state prisons. And what contraband were the guards instructed to root out? Weapons? Drugs? No, something much more sinister and threatening to public safety -- voter registration cards! Campaign literature!

Massachusetts is one of four states (along with Maine, Utah, and Vermont) with a state constitution allowing prisoners the vote. So it seemed natural for Joe Labriola, who is chairman of the Norfolk [state prison] Lifers Group, Inc., to decide that prisoners, their families, and supporters should engage in the political process by formally registering with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance to form a PAC.

Gauging from the reaction, however, to this seemingly trivial application of civic responsibility, you'd have thought that several battalions of armed revolutionaries had battled their way out of Massachusetts' prisons and were marching down Boston's Commonwealth Avenue bent on burning the state capitol.

Soon after word got out that prisoners were forming a PAC, the brouhaha began. Acting governor Celluci -- who stepped into the position after former-governor William Weld resigned and rode off to Washington in search of an Ambassadorship to Mexico -- called a press conference and launched a barrage of sound-bites.

"I find it personally repugnant that prisoners thought they could organize a political action committee from their prison cells to influence public policy decisions,") said Cellucci amid a photo-op swing through Western Massachusetts that had a distinct law-and-order theme. "It's absurd," he quipped, "I don't have much sympathy for these people."

But Cellucci didn't limit himself to soundbites. On August 14, he filed a constitutional amendment to take the vote away from prisoners. Then he signed an executive order directing prison officials to "impose proper punishment" on any prisoners caught engaging in PAC activity. To lend legitimacy to the latter action, Cellucci stretched beyond credulity the "clean-government" prohibition against raising campaign money in public buildings -- which Cellucci says includes prisons.

"It [the executive order] directs the DOC to take serious disciplinary measures to prohibit this [formation of the PAC] from happening," said Ilene Hoffer, a Cellucci spokesperson.

Anthony Carevale, PR hack for the MA DOC, said guards were acting on Cellucci's order when they detained several prisoners while cells were searched.

"We have inspected a number of cells where we have reason to believe inmates were involved in activities that are strictly prohibited under the executive order," Carevale told Zachary Dowdy, reporter for the Boston Globe. Materials were seized from the cells, he said.

"If the raids occurred, it doesn't surprise me," said Jill Brotman, executive director of the Massachusetts Prison Society. "They use tactics of terrorism in the prisons, and they confiscate stuff that they have no right to confiscate."

According to a report in Prison Connections magazine, "Three prisoners who were involved in creating the PAC have since reportedly been placed in solitary confinement at MCI-Norfolk: Chairman Michael Shea, Vice-Chairman Joseph Labriola, and board member Kevin LeMay."

"In the '70s," Labriola told the Globe, "we thought we could make change with violence. Our whole point now is to make prisoners understand that we can make changes by using the vote. We have the ability to move prisons in a new direction."

Is this the kind of seditious rhetoric that warrants the governor calling out DOC storm troopers to search, seize, shackle, and isolate prisoners in 24-hour isolation? Apparently so. Or could it be something else?

"It is mean-spirited," said Gary Rothberger, an attorney with Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. "It's not as rough as a lot of things they do but it's an assertion of their power, an unnecessary assertion of legal authority, we think."

But if the raids on prisoners' cells were intended to thwart formation of the PAC, the DOC failed to achieve that goal. On the day after the shakedowns, Denis Kennedy, a spokesperson for the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, confirmed that the prisoner PAC was officially registered and may begin operations.

The proposed constitutional amendment may also be doomed to futility. Cellucci, who said that prisoners voting "insults" victims, admitted that it would require a majority vote in two separate legislative sessions in order to pass. But he makes it sound easier than it really is.

"This is no easy feat," writes Norfolk prisoner Gary E. Mosso in Prison Connections magazine. "It would require a Constitutional Convention (both chambers, House and Senate, coming together in a joint session). Such conventions are extremely rare, and when they do happen many amendments are debated and voted on." Mosso points out that one hot potato amendment that legislators have been ducking for years, term limits, would likely be raised should a Constitutional Convention be convened. Mosso predicts, probably correctly so, that legislators will keep their heads down rather than risk dealing with the term limits amendment.

Jim Pingeon, an attorney with the Center for Public Representation, agrees that Cellucci's constitutional amendment faces long odds.

"Quite properly, it's hard to amend the constitution because it is fundamental, and the obstacles are quite substantial," Pingeon said. "This suggests that Cellucci's goal is not to make our streets safe, but to exploit public fears about crime in order to further his own political ambition.''

Boston Globe, Prison Connections

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