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Guards Abusing Prisoners in Boston Leads to Jury Awards and Disciplinary Action

by Matthew T. Clarke

Widespread reports of guards having sex with, raping, and beating prisoners in Suffolk County (MA) jails have led to the indictment of guards, firing of guards, disciplinary action against-guards, and jury awards against the county. [PLN, Feb. 2003]. Disciplinary action was taken against 23 guards. However, in October 2002, the disciplinary action against seven guards, two of whom were indicted by a federal grand jury for violating prisoners' rights, was reversed by union arbitration. One of them was later acquitted by a federal jury, the other pleaded guilty.

On October 15, 2002, a blue-ribbon panel appointed in 2001 by Governor Jane Swift to investigate the problems in Boston jails, issued a report which found that the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department was a "`deeply troubled institution,' plagued by patronage and lacking leadership." The extremely critical 77-page report put most of the blame on Suffolk County Sheriff Richard J. Rouse. Rouse's failure to lead his staff and absentee role at the jail led town atmosphere in which guards and supervisors believed they could get away with anything because nobody, least of all the sheriff, cared about what went on at the jail. Despite the indictment of seven guards on federal charges of violating prisoners' civil rights, guards are still not properly trained in the use of force or avoiding sexual misconduct, according to U.S. Attorney Donald K. Stern, who chaired the panel.

In October 2002, arbitrators reversed disciplinary action taken against seven of the twenty-three guards who had been disciplined since 1999. David DiCenso, whose firing was.reversed, had been disciplined for trading sex for favors with a female prisoner. Richard Powers was terminated after having admitted writing sexually graphic love letters to a female prisoner. His reinstatement is being appealed. Also reinstated was Daniel Hickley who had been fired after DNA evidence showed that he spit on and beat a prisoner inside a transport van. Hinkley's reinstatement is not being appealed.

Prosecutors had declined to prosecute a guard who was accused of raping a female prisoner or Powers, who was accused of assaulting a female guard who found his love letters, despite a magistrate's finding of probable cause to prosecute in both cases. Prosecutors also did not prosecute DiCenso, Robert Parise and David Mojica for having sex with a female prisoner who became pregnant with a child who paternity tests showed to be Mojica's. At the time of the sex acts, the state had no law criminalizing sex between guards and consenting prisoners. Now it does.

On March 31, 2003, a federal jury convicted Brian Bailey, 31, a former Nashua Street Jail guard, of criminal civil rights violations, conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, and perjury in the beating of five jail prisoners between June 1998. and October 1999. One former prisoner had Tourette's syndrome and was beaten because guards believed he had cursed them under his breath. Another former prisoner was beaten because he hid a sandwich in a laundry bag.

A total of seven guards were indicted for the beatings. William R. Benson, 51, and Thomas M. Bethune, Jr. were acquitted by a jury. Lt. Eric J. Donnelly, 36, Deputy Sheriff Anthony Nuzzo, 32, Deputy Sheriff Melvin J. Massucco III, 39, and Lt. Randall R. Sutherland, 45, pleaded guilty in the case. Bailey faces a maximum of five years on the conspiracy count and ten years on each of the other three counts.

On April 10, 2003, the Sheriff's Department agreed to pay a $5 million settlement for unlawfully strip searching women prisoners at the Nashua Street Jail.

On April 17, 2003, a federal jury awarded Bruce Baron, 51, a former South End Jail guard, $500,000 plus interest for emotional distress he suffered when other guards retaliated against him after he reported a supervisor for playing cards with prisoners. Baron worked at South End from 1995 to 1998 and endured over a year of harassment before quitting and suing the Sheriff's Department. The harassment included ostracism; threats; shoving; being called a "rat," "rat coward, and "rat officer;" a guard tossing slabs of cheese on his lunch plate while saying, "Here's some cheese for the rat;" guards ordering prisoners to give their cheese to the "rat officer;" threatening posters in the guards' locker room and in places where prisoners could see them; and threatening phone calls to Baron's wife, who has MS and uses a wheelchair.

One can only hope that Rouse's successor is a better sheriff than he was. Clearly it will take extraordinary leadership to change the culture of brutality at the jails in Boston into something more civilized.

Sources: Boston Globe, Associated Press, USA Today

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