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A Death in Custody: Massachusetts DOC Wracked by Scandal

On August 23, 2003, the 26 men in Unit J-1 at SBCC, a "supermax" prison in Shirley, Massachusetts, were finishing lunch. It was just before noon. There was one guard in the unit, a prison guard named David Lonergan. Two guards were assigned to J-1 on that shift, but the other, Michael Kasperzak, left the unit at 11:40 to cover a chow line elsewhere. J-1 is a protective custody unit, and the men who live there take their meals in their cells. At the end of lunch, they come out of their cells to return their food trays and then they go back and lock in. The men returned their trays. One or two spoke briefly with Lonergan about arranging afternoon recreation and then went to their cells. As the doors slid shut, a man named Joseph Druce slipped into cell 2 and waited for the lock to click. Cell 2 was the "home" of a defrocked priest named John Geoghan.

Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC) is the newest prison in Massachusetts. Located about 45 miles north and west of Boston, SBCC shares the ominous sterility of the hundred or so other "supermax" barbed-wire blockhouses constructed all across America in the 1990s. The Massachusetts Department of Correction's web site describes SBCC as follows:

"Officially opening on September 30, 1998, this 500,000 square foot, high-tech, maximum security facility consists of 1,024 general population cells, 128 special management cells, and 24 health service beds. The security system is operated by 42 graphic interfaced computer terminals (GUI), which drive a keyless security system. The GUI controls 1,705 doors, lights, receptacles, water, intercom/Public Address, fire alarms and vehicle gates. Incorporating one of the largest camera matrix systems in the country, 366 cameras record live 24 hours a day. The perimeter surveillance system includes taut wire and microwave detection systems."

Like most high-tech systems, however, SBCC offers no protection from human error.

John Geoghan was born in Boston and lived there for most of his life. He attended Cathedral High School and obtained a degree in History and Philosophy at Holy Cross College in Worcester. Later, he earned a Masters degree in Theology at Harvard, and a Masters in Divinity from St. John's Seminary. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1962, and worked in many positions in the Boston Archdiocese for 36 years. In February of 1998, however, he was dismissed from the priesthood as a result of numerous parishioners' allegations that he had abused them sexually when they were children.

In January of 2002, Geoghan was convicted after trial of one count of indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of fourteen. The conviction stemmed from a single incident in which Geoghan "goosed" a young boy at a public swimming pool. This was to be Geoghan's first and only criminal conviction. On February 21, 2002, in an atmosphere of public outrage against the Catholic Church which was the result of newspaper revelations that the Church had hidden from law enforcement and from its own parishioners hundreds of instances of sexual abuse by scores of priests over a period of at least thirty years, John Geoghan was sentenced to 9 to 10 years in prison, six to serve, the balance suspended for the rest of his life. Sixty-six years old, bespectacled and frail, Geoghan entered the Massachusetts DOC's reception center at MCI-Concord on February 22, 2002. Because of his age, frailty, and the nature and notoriety of his crime, prison authorities classified Geoghan to the SHU, the prison's protective custody unit. In addition to being the reception center for the Massachusetts prison system, MCI-Concord is a medium security prison, with a permanent population work crew and administrative segregation units, one of which is the SHU.

Joseph Druce, 38, was serving a life sentence for First Degree Murder. Druce had been in prison since 1989, and had recently come to the protective custody unit at SBCC following forty-nine months in the Departmental Disciplinary Unit (DDU) at the state prison at Walpole, a super-isolation unit where prisoners convicted of major disciplinary violations are cut off from all human contact for up to ten years at a time. The DDU is famous for driving men mad. Druce had an extensive assaultive history both in and out of prison, and had at times done serious harm to himself. Part of Druce's defense at his murder trial was that his male victim, who was beaten and strangled, had sexually propositioned him.

When John Geoghan's cell door locked, Druce jimmied it shut by jamming a paperback book into its upper track and a pair of nail clippers into the lower track. The ability to jam cell doors at SBCC from the inside is the result of a design defect, and has been known to staff and prisoners alike since shortly after the prison opened. He then took a sock he had inside his shirt, wrapped it around Geoghan's neck, and strangled him until he lost consciousness. Then, while Geoghan was on the floor, Druce repeatedly jumped onto him from the bed, breaking all of his ribs and crushing the old man's chest.

Guard Lonergan did not see Duce enter Geoghan's cell. He was alerted to a problem in cell 2 by the tier runners, two men who remained out of their cells when the others locked in order to clean and perform other chores on the unit. The runners alerted Longergan after they realized that the unit's video cameras would reveal that one of them had looked into Geoghan's cell. Longergan went to the cell, saw what was going on, attempted to open the door and called an emergency response team, which arrived within a minute or two. It took the emergency team about seven minutes to get the cell door open. They were successful only after they persuaded Druce to partially unjam the door, which he did not do until he was sure that Geoghan was dead.

At the time he was killed, John Geoghan was probably the most famous prisoner in Massachusetts. The sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church was huge and ongoing. At the end of 2002, Cardinal Law had resigned as Archbishop of Boston amid public outrage at the Church's concealment of decades of sexual abuse by priests. Although Geoghan's one conviction was for a relatively minor crime, he had been accused of at least 150 instances of abuse, and was the public face of the scandal. Nonetheless, the fact that he had been a priest and the brutality of his murder generated considerable public outcry for an investigation. Even some of Geoghan's victims told the press that they regretted both the denial of justice embodied in their being deprived of the chance to confront him in court and a sadness that Geoghan himself had been deprived of the opportunity to reflect on his sins while in prison and repent. Almost immediately, the question became, what was this frail old man doing in a super maximum security prison to begin with? How did he get from medium security at MCI-Concord to the supermax at Shirley?

Governmental Reaction

Mitt Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002. A handsome millionaire businessman, he roared into office in the aftermath of his perceived success at organizing the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. His theme during his campaign was one of housecleaning, good government, and reform, and he has taken every opportunity since becoming governor to project that image. There is often debate as to whether particular actions that he takes represent true "follow-through" or merely public relations, but there is no question that in this case he reacted quickly to the widespread perception that Geoghan's death merited investigation.

On September 4, 2003, twelve days after Geoghan's death, Edward Flynn, Secretary of Public Safety, ordered an administrative investigation of John Geoghan's murder. Assigned to produce the report were Major Mark Delaney, a senior state police investigator who is the commander of the state police crime lab, Mark Reilly, Chief of Investigative Services of the Department of Correction, and George M. Camp, a correctional consultant with administrative experience in the federal, New York City, and New York State prison systems.

Not surprisingly, there was considerable and vocal unhappiness from prison reform advocates, including some legislators, regarding the composition of the panel. Mark Reilly, after all, had been working for many years for the very agency whose policies and practices were supposedly to be subject to close scrutiny, and Mr. Camp has substantial consulting contracts with the DOC. [Editor's Note: Camp also testifies as an expert witness, extensively and almost exclusively for prison systems.] The Department of Public Safety took the position that it was unfair to criticize the investigative panel even before it had really begun work, but the criticism did not abate. Even as discontent with the panel simmered in the press, the Romney Administration began to consider a wider response to the murder. Its first move, however, was to make the State Police representative, major Delaney, Chairman of the panel. The nuts and bolts of the investigation were to be conducted by state police, not DOC personnel.

The four state police investigators working for the panel visited the protective custody units at MCI-Concord and SBCC where Geoghan had been confined, and reviewed the policies, regulations, post orders (written standard orders for each functional position for prison officers), disciplinary and incident reports pertaining to the operations of both of those units and to John Geoghan's and Joseph Druce's confinements there. The investigators did not directly interview prisoner witnesses from the two units. This was because the District Attorney was also investigating the murder for the purpose of prosecuting Joseph Druce. The D.A. did not want the problems associated with multiple interviews of the same witnesses, which often generate inconsistencies that can be seized upon by defense counsel. The investigators instead reviewed the transcripts of the witness interviews that were conducted by the district attorney's investigators. The panel's investigators also met with staff of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, a prisoner's rights legal services office which had advocated for John Geoghan with prison authorities before his murder.

While the administrative investigation was underway, political interplay generated additional pressure on the Romney Administration to broaden its review of the Department of Correction. At the end of September, Jarrett Barrios, the State Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Safety (and a rising Democratic star in the legislature), announced that his committee was considering appointing a commission to do a thorough investigation. In response to both that proposal and continuing criticism of the composition of the administrative investigation panel, the Governor announced creation of a bipartisan, sixteen member "Governor's Commission on Correction Reform" and charged it with delivering a full report in six months. This group was quickly dubbed the "Harshbarger Commission," as it was chaired by Scott Harshbarger, a former Massachusetts Attorney General.

In January of 2004 the Romney Administration announced that the first investigatory panel had finished its work, but that the report would not be made public. This created howls of protest. The Department of Public Safety quickly changed course, and released a redacted version of the report on February 3, 2004. The explanation for the original assertion that the report would not be made public was that parts of it could not be publicized for fear of jeapordizing the prosecution of Joseph Druce.

The conclusions reached by the administrative investigation were not redacted, however, and interestingly, when the sound and fury abated, it emerged that most people examining them agreed that most of them were correct. The principal original question had been, what was John Geoghan doing at a supermax in the first place? How and why he got there was now becoming clear.

The core story is not particularly complicated and will surprise no one familiar with prison life. Certain guards in the MCI-Concord protective custody unit (in Geoghan's case, two), who hated him because of the nature of his crime, because he was an educated man, because he had lived a privileged life as a priest, and because he came into prison with naive expectations of being afforded basic human dignity, took it upon themselves to break him. When they did not succeed in breaking him they decided to ensure that he would be transferred to maximum security where he would room with the wolves. This was accomplished by loading the quiet old man, who spent most of his time praying, reading, or playing cards, with false, serious disciplinary reports, and then using that bogus "disciplinary history" to manipulate his classification to maximum security. The process in Geoghan's case, however, was so blatant that substantial arm-twisting was necessary among prison officials before the old man was sent to his death.

The administrative panel concluded that Geoghan had been physically assaulted by a guard at MCI-Concord on at least one occasion following a visit from a priest, that he had "come into contact" with another guard at MCI-Concord following a visit from his sister, and that someone, probably another prisoner, had placed feces in Geoghan's cell at MCI-Concord on a third occasion. It also found that the system for investigation of prisoner complaints against staff within the Department of Correction is "sporadic and cavalier," with no mechanism for central office review of determinations made at the individual prison level. It found that there is no way for superintendents, much less the central DOC headquarters, to share such misconduct reports or their outcomes as prisoners or staff members are transferred from prison to prison. The administrative panel found that the investigations of Geoghan's complaints against guards who harassed or assaulted him were "incomplete at best" and that Geoghan had received additional disciplinary reports for "lying" as a result of filing his complaints. The panel found that John Geoghan, a quiet old man, received a total of fifteen disciplinary reports during his incarceration in the protective custody unit at MCI-Concord, that this represented more disciplinary reports than were received by any other man in the unit during the time period that he was confined there, that eight of those reports were written by the same guard, one Cosmo Bisazza, and that Geoghan was the recipient of forty percent of all the disciplinary reports written by Bisazza against prisoners in the protective custody unit during the months in question.

The panel found that Sergeant Sheridan, one of the disciplinary hearing officers for MCI-Concord, had spoken to Bisazza about the disciplinary reports he had written against Geoghan. Sheridan told the investigators that he thought that the disciplinary reports written against Geoghan were either minor in nature, bad reports, or just "flat crap." He described Geoghan as a little old man who didn't bother anyone. The panel found that disciplinary reports written against Geoghan at MCI-Concord were "seldom in compliance with post orders." When the disciplinary hearing officers at MCI-Concord learned that Geoghan was to be transferred to SBCC, a different hearing officer, Steve Lacrosse, called the prison's Director of Classification and told her not to "blame the d-board, you do it on your own, but don't blame it on Inmate Geoghan being a discipline problem."

The panel also found that the classification process employed on John Geoghan was "marked by highly irregular behavior" on the part of three senior officials at MCI-Concord. On February 20, 2003, Geoghan had received a unanimous vote of the classification board to remain at MCI-Concord. On each of the following two days he was issued a trivial d-report. The first was for an out-of-order hot pot and the second report was for "insolence," issued when he complained about the first report. He pled guilty to each, each was reduced to a minor infraction and he was sanctioned with a month's loss of canteen. "Between February 20 and 24, 2003, several two-party conversations about Inmate Geoghan's status occurred between three senior officials at MCI Concord.... Superintendent Grant inquired of Director of Classification DiNardo if she had acted on the Classification Board's recommendation per her role as the Superintendent's Designee in reviewing the Classification Board's recommendation [that Geoghan remain where he was]. Superintendent Grant expressed to Deputy Superintendent for Classification Anderson, his desire to transfer Inmate Geoghan to the SHU at SBCC. Director of Classification DiNardo told Deputy Superintendent for Classification Anderson, that she would not reverse the recommendation of the Classification Board and that Deputy Superintendent Anderson would have to reverse it if it were to be reversed, to which Deputy Superintendent Anderson replied that he had already assumed the role of "Superintendent's Designee" and reversed the Board's recommendation." (Emphasis added.) "In reversing the Classification Board's recommendation," says the report, "Deputy Superintendent Anderson did not seek out or consult with any members of the Classification Board."

On February 28, 2003, John Geoghan appealed Anderson's recommendation to send him to SBCC, pointing out the trivial nature of the two disciplinary reports at issue. The appeal was routed to the Superintendent's Designee: Deputy Superintendent Anderson. Not surprisingly, Anderson denied this appeal of his own decision. Geoghan was sent to SBCC on April 1.

By the time the administrative investigation concluded, the Harshbarger Commission was in full swing. The Commission had fifteen members plus nine staff members and student interns. It included State Senator Jarrett Barrios, State Representative Harold P. Naughton, Jr., a former Commissioner of Correction, criminal justice consultants, a professor, and, presumably for balance, a criminal defense attorney. The Harshbarger Commission's mission was much broader than that of the earlier administrative investigation panel. It was "to conduct a comprehensive review of the Department of Correction, including issues related to governance, operational systems, programs, reentry, and budget." The commission reviewed practices of DOCs across the country, including hundreds of documents. It took testimony from invited organizations at 14 commission meetings, visited twelve prisons, and held a public hearing at which 38 speakers testified. It even, amazingly, conducted four "focus groups" comprised of 40 actual current prisoners. Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services was the first group to make a comprehensive presentation to a meeting of the Commission.

The Harshbarger Commission released its final report on June 30, 2004. That report reflects surprising unanimity regarding what is wrong with the DOC as well as what needs to be done about it. The report found that in as much as the DOC's express purpose is to not just incarcerate people but to enhance public safety by rehabilitating them, its mission, put diplomatically, "ha[s] not been fully effectuated," that its present internal management systems are inadequate to support reform, that top management does not have sufficient authority and discretion [to direct and discipline correctional staff], and that the DOC needs an external advisory board on corrections to provide "necessary ongoing monitoring and oversight of the DOC." The report contains eighteen major recommendations - too many to discuss in depth here but not too many to annotate with brief translations from politicspeak:

1. The Department should revise its mission to include reducing the rate of re-offense by prisoners released into the community.

Translation: Since the Willie Horton incident, which completely pulverized Michael Dukakis' 1988 run for President, the Massachusetts DOC has had one focus, which is to prevent anyone from committing another crime prior to the last possible date that he or she can be incarcerated under their governing sentence. This precludes taking dangerous "risks" like granting furloughs, placing prisoners in work-release programs or minimum security, or ganting parole.

This is counterproductive, because people warehoused behind the wall until the last possible moment commit additional crimes at about a 40% rate within three years of release.

2. The Department should adopt a performance management and accountability system to enhance agency performance, improve the culture, and utilize budget resources more effectively.

Translation: DOC management does not effectively track anything except the current location of persons in custody; it needs to know many things that it currently does not know (such as, in the case of John Geoghan, whether one guard is writing fifty percent of all the d-reports that a prisoner receives) in order to understand whether the problem is the prisoner or the problem is the guard.

3. The Department's management capacity should be strengthened through the collective bargaining process and revisions to the internal rank structure.

Translation: The guards' union is out of control. In Massachusetts, there is one guard for every two prisoners, and on the average, between vacation days and sick days, every guard works four days a week. That is, the average guard takes off more than 52 days each year. In some prisons, such as MCI-Concord, where John Geoghan was relentlessly abused, guards bid not only on shifts but on units, where they stay for years, and which they consequently treat as their own private fiefdoms. This also hamstrings management's ability to move guards around as needed or in order to moderate personality conflicts between staff members or staff and prisoners.

4. There should be an external advisory board on corrections to monitor and oversee the Department. The board should work cooperatively with the Commissioner to develop concrete goals for the future of the Department.

Translation: Something like the Harshbarger Commission should be made permanent.

5. The Department should take responsibility for bringing down staffing costs and reducing worker absenteeism.

Translation: Same as three above.

6. The Department's budget should be more closely aligned with its mission and priorities. This will enhance public safety in a fiscally responsible manner.

Translation: Close unnecessary maximum and medium security prisons and open badly needed minimum security and prerelease facilities. Also, spend some real money on education and work programs.

7. The Commonwealth must view reducing the rate of re-offense by returning prisoners as one of its highest public safety priorities.

Translation: A key measure of the success of any prison system is what prisoners do after they are released.

8. The Department should adopt a comprehensive reentry strategy including risk assessment, proven programs, "step-down," and supervised release.

Translation: Figure out who should be in minimum, pre-release, and work-release programs, as well as on parole, and put them there, rather than warehousing them in an eight by ten cell until their ultimate release date.

9. The Department should hold prisoners more accountable for participation in productive activities designed to reduce the risk the likelihood that they will re-offend.

Comment: Obviously a two-edged sword, but it at least implies the existence of "productive activities" in which prisoners who are so inclined may participate.

10. The Commonwealth and the Department should revise sentencing laws and DOC policies that create barriers to appropriate classification, programming, and "step-down."

Translation: End mandatory sentencing, which hamstrings the DOC's ability to place prisoners in minimum security, pre-release, and community release programs, and also precludes parole for the affected individuals.

11. The Commonwealth should establish a presumption that DOC prisoners who are released are subject to ongoing monitoring and supervision.

Translation: It is unclear what this will end up meaning. There is tension between those who want this to amount to tacking additional supervision onto existing sentence laws (in effect lengthening sentences) and those who want it to mean, in effect, presumptive parole. [Editor's Note: The trend, nationally, has been for the former where prisoners serve their maximum sentence, then have a few years of "supervision" afterwards, the worst of both worlds.]

12. There should be a dedicated external review of prisoner health and mental health services.

Translation: There needs to be a commission like the Harshbarger Commission, but equipped with the necessary medical expertise, to review the health care and mental health care services of the DOC.

13. There should be a dedicated external review of issues pertaining to female prisoners in the Department's custody.

Translation: Among the immediate assignments very dubious of any DOC oversight commission must be addressing the fact that the sole women's prison in Massachusetts is disastrously overcrowded, and short on programs and activities that could help women get their lives together before and after release. Plus, women prisoners should not be sexually abused or raped by guards.

14. The Department should ensure that policies and procedures, including those related to prisoner classification, discipline, and grievances, are transparent, well-communicated, have specified appeals processes, and are implemented by staff who are appropriately selected, trained, and supervised.

Translation: The DOC's classification, discipline, and grievance regulations need to be rewritten so that they work as intended and are not subject to abusive manipulation of the type directed against John Geoghan. Specifically, classification must be centrally administered, so that classification decisions are not subject to "overrides" and the kind of blatant malfeasance that sent John Geoghan to his death. Idiotic practices such as the review of classification appeals by the same person who rendered the decision being appealed must end.

15. The Department should ensure that policies and procedures are properly implemented through oversight and accountability systems, including an independent investigative authority, data management, and unit management.

Translation: Prisoner complaints against staff must be professionally investigated. Not by the guard's cousin or brother-in law, and by a office of investigations operated out of DOC central headquarters, not from scattered offices in the prisons where the complaints originate. Management systems should show top management statistics such as the number of disciplinary reports written in each unit, by each guard, and against which prisoners, and management should review those reports, so that personal vendettas such as that conducted against John Geoghan can be identified and appropriate staff counseling or disciplinary action can be provided or taken, as the case warrants.

16. The Department should conduct a system-wide facility review to ensure that its physical plant is consistent with the security needs of staff and the prisoner population, and the Department's mission.

Translation: Close unneeded maximum security prisons and open badly needed minimum and pre-release facilities.

17. The Department should adequately protect and care for prisoners in protective custody.

Translation: Do not house predators with prey. Place staff in protective custody units who are capable of behaving in a professional manner towards prisoners who are housed there.

18. The Department should increase the linguistic diversity and cultural competence of its workforce.

Comment: The prisoner population in the Massachusetts DOC is more than fifty percent Black and Hispanic, although Blacks comprise about 5%, and Hispanics, 7%, of the state's population. Some day, America may look at itself in the mirror and reject this way of running a "justice" system. In the meantime, provide prison staff who at least have a clue.

As of October, 2004 there have been developments other than the issuance of reports. The former superintendent at MCI-Concord (the individual who directed that the classification board be overridden to send John Geoghan to SBCC) is now a former superintendent. The two guards who continually harassed John Geoghan at MCI-Concord are no longer working in the protective custody unit. The Commissioner of Correction at the time of Geoghan's murder, Michael Maloney, was unceremoniously and quite publicly canned, and is now a bureaucrat for the Norfolk County Jail. More important, his replacement is a determined woman who sees the need for many of the changes recommended by the Harshbarger Commission and has a plan for achieving at least some of them. Moreover, she has the support of the Governor's people in the state's executive office building on Beacon Hill. A bill to create an Inspector General of Prisons, proposed by the same Senator Barrios who served on the Harshbarger Commission, will be filed next year in the legislature, and there is some chance that the Governor will sign it. The Department of Correction is re-writing its classification regulations. And, Governor Romney has just signed an executive order extending the life of the Harshbarger Commission for a couple of years, and giving it some money taken from the budget of the DOC to fund continuation of its work.

On the other hand, my office accepts collect calls from Massachusetts prisoners each Monday afternoon for three hours. The lawyers take turns each week on the phones. Last Monday it was my turn, and during the course of the afternoon I spoke to two men who had gotten jammed up with trivial disciplinary reports from guards who didn't like them. As a result, one man lost his minimum security placement and job, and the other lost his parole. At the bottom of the pile, nothing, yet, has really changed.

For an American jurisdiction, Massachusetts is old. The aisles of the State House Library are full of dusty reports of committees and commissions extending back two hundred years. Many of those reports, prepared by the experts of their day, probably contain good ideas that were never implemented by law or by practice. John Geoghan's sad end has resulted in real light being cast into the dark corners of the prison system. It remains to be seen whether the state's political leadership has the will to act on what that light revealed.

[Peter Costanza is a staff attorney with Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services in Boston, Massachusetts.]

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