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Cell-Block Beatdown: Do Boston Prisoners Have Any Chance of Holding Abusive Prison Guards Responsible? Signs Are Not Promising
Holding Abusive Prison Guards Responsible? Signs Are Not Promising
by David S. Bernstein
Stories about prison guards beating up prisoners arent exactly the rage these days people are more likely to get outraged over lax treatment of prisoners, like the flap about the Massachusetts Department of Correction allowing convicted murderers to hold a Christmas party.
But, no matter what one thinks incarceration should look like, it should not include sadistic beatings of subdued and shackled prisoners, or the deliberate withholding of needed medication or medical treatment. And thats what many prisoners say occurred, repeatedly, within the walls of the South Bay House of Correction in the late 1990s.
That is also the finding of a state commission report from 2002, which found reported incidents of physical abuse and sexual misconduct, while not widespread, were egregious at the deeply troubled institution. And now, no fewer than 55 former prisoners are suing the Suffolk County Sheriffs Department, which runs South Bay, for these types of abuses.
South Bay, a sleek, modern, seven-building complex built in 1991 to replace the notoriously antiquated Deer Island facility, houses prisoners serving sentences of up to two and a half years. Criminals doing harder time go to state prisons, like MCI-Shirley. Many of the men at the House of Correction are serving time for drug possession, theft, or assault. Many are regular guys who screwed up. They just want to do their time and get back home. They are less Boston Strangler and more Mark Wahlberg who has credited his 45 days at Deer Island for scaring him straight.
For the last few years, Sheriff Andrea Cabral has been stuck dealing with the problems left by her predecessor, Richard Rouse, who fled from office in 2002 amid allegations of gross mismanagement, patronage, and other sins including multiple allegations of prisoner abuse at South Bay and the smaller Nashua Street Jail, used for temporary detainment.
Many of them have proven costly. Female prisoners won a $10 million award to compensate them for illegal strip-searches. Another female prisoner who was coerced into having sex with South Bay guards and became pregnant by one of them settled for $657,000. A federal jury awarded half a million dollars to South Bay guard Bruce Baron for the psychological abuse he endured from his fellow jail guards after he reported one of them for misbehavior.
There were even criminal prosecutions. Federal authorities brought charges against jail guards at the Nashua Street Jail. Four department employees ultimately pleaded guilty to their roles in the vicious beating of Leonard Gibson, an 18-year-old with Tourettes syndrome, in October 1999 guards said they would beat the Tourettes out of him, because his outbursts were disturbing their attempt to watch baseball on television.
All of these incidents occurred between 1997 and 1999. The allegations of guards abusing male prisoners at South Bay, which happened during the same three-year period as all these other misdeeds, has had a longer, tougher, and less noticed struggle for attention, and for justice. A major step came last spring, when Cabrals office signed a 10-page settlement agreement in a class-action suit brought by 55 former South Bay prisoners. In it, the department made no concession about any individual action, but it agreed to a host of operation, policy, procedure, and practice changes at South Bay many of which it was, by then, already implementing, such as placing video surveillance cameras in the elevators, where the worst beatings allegedly took place. It also paid $175,000 to reimburse the prisoners attorneys, and agreed to an external review next spring to measure its progress.
Thats a huge step, but it leaves a lot left unanswered. Now, with the class-action suit settled, those 55 former prisoners are bringing their individual complaints to court. Their allegations name 86 different jail guards, sergeants, lieutenants, and captains, out of a total of around 500 employed at South Bay at the time, plus numerous John Does who prisoners could not identify because they were allegedly hooded, or forced into a position from which they could not see their attackers. Most of those guards still work for the sheriff. Few have been disciplined. Several have been promoted.
Code Of Silence
The tales of abuse are frightening. There is Darryl Buchanan, beaten in an elevator until several teeth were dislodged; Carlton Buford, beaten and kicked with steel-toed boots; James Conrad, denied his daily medication for a week and then beaten so severely he ended up in the hospital for a month; Kenneth Edge, beaten until he couldnt stand and there was blood everywhere, according to other prisoners; Edward Evans, with permanent hearing loss as a result of his beatings; Robert Gude, an epileptic, denied his medication and then beaten until he went into a seizure; Robert Hughes, beaten until he passed out, bleeding from his ear; Michael McGrath, beaten until he lost consciousness; Daniel Saliba, beaten and then thrown down a metal-and-cement stairwell while shackled; and Stephen St. James, kicked so hard he defecated blood for days.
Formal complaints when prisoners dared make them fell on deaf ears within Rouses sheriffs department. Disciplining of guards was rare. The district attorneys office made no effort to bring criminal charges. Instead, prisoners were more likely to suffer more abuse in retaliation for lodging the complaint.
A state commission, led by former US Attorney Donald K. Stern, found that prisoner grievances were trapped in a system with a lack of controls to prohibit retaliation, no policy against harassment or retaliation against prisoners in response to a grievance, a code of silence among staff, and a grievance procedure that included no interview of the prisoner, no hearing, and no notification to the prisoner of a rejected complaint, from which he might file an appeal.
While prisoners at South Bay frequently used the official prisoner grievance process 1,043 times in 2001, for instance they almost never did so for serious allegations like use of force, leading the commission to speculate that there could be reluctance or fear about filing grievances on certain topics.
Complaining against the treatment of a particular guard seemed like it carried a certain risk, says Owen Todd, a member of the Stern Commission that produced the report. The guards in the various unions had the esprit de corps of one for all and all for one.
A year earlier, an audit by the American Correctional Association (ACA) often accused of going easy on prison administrators similarly blasted the grievance-investigation unit at the Nashua Street Jail. The ACA found no procedure to track complaints, poorly trained investigators, and other systemic problems as well as a widespread belief among supervisors that administrators would reverse any discipline they handed out to guards.
Guards themselves kept their knowledge of abusive coworkers to themselves, locked behind a code of silence and threats of retaliation. Theres no question that that atmosphere existed at that time, says Francis DiMento Jr., an attorney who helped former South Bay guard Bruce Baron win his lawsuit against the county. Baron reported a supervisor for the infraction of playing cards with a prisoner; he then endured a year and a half of harassment from guards for being a rat.
Since quitting the department, Baron has also talked publicly about witnessing guards beating prisoners. One of the guards was nicknamed Corporal Punishment, DiMento says. There are some sadistic guys in there.
The Most Egregious
Its tempting to be dismissive of these sorts of lawsuits prisoners do, indeed, file many frivolous and baseless suits. But, as Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services (MCLS), points out, that is far more common at state facilities, where prisoners serve lengthy sentences and have little else to do. South Bay prisoners are serving, at most, two and a half years, and often much less. They will be long gone by the time any lawsuit reaches trial; they almost always prefer to just stick it out for the months until their release.
And these cases werent even initiated by the prisoners. It all started in September, 1999, when prisoner Anthony Bova appeared for a scheduled court appearance covered with terrible bruises. The judge refused to send Bova back to South Bay. He ordered photographs taken of the injuries, and assigned attorney Theodore Goguen to represent Bova. His face was mashed up, his chest was slashed, Goguen says of Bova. I guess when the guards beat him up they forgot he had a court date.
According to Bova, guards had placed him on his knees, hands cuffed behind his back, and beaten him. Goguen asked Bova whether this was an isolated incident; Bova named three other prisoners he knew had been beaten. Goguen and his partner interviewed them, and that led to more, and more, and more.
They accepted only the most egregious cases, and those with supporting witnesses or documentation, Goguen says. If it was just a few cuts on the face, we said no, Goguen says. The attorneys also rejected incidents that were arguably legitimate uses of force to restrain a prisoner.
Two months after meeting Bova, Goguen filed a suit with 28 plaintiffs. Three months later, he added 27 more names.
Most of the guards are named in just one or two incidents, but some names pop up over and over again.
Certain types of abuse also recur. Most striking are the elevator rides, in which guards, often in groups, allegedly dragged prisoners into an elevator, where no surveillance cameras were installed at the time, to administer beatings. Another repeating theme: withholding a prisoners medication until he acted out, and using that as provocation to assault him.
Several of the alleged incidents came in direct response to prisoners attempts to complain about guards misbehavior the kind of retaliation that ensured that few prisoners would file grievances. One prisoner claims he was beaten in his cell after showing other prisoners how to properly fill out grievance forms.
A Bad Omen
Goguen finally got the first of the 55 cases to court several months ago, but was unable to convince a jury to find guard William Curtis guilty of violating prisoner William Fryars civil rights.
On July 14, 1998, Curtis called an emergency-response team to Fryars cell. Fryars face was a bloody and bruised mess; one tooth was dislodged, another tooth was broken apart, and his lip was split. According to Fryar who has muscular dystrophy and walks with a cane Curtis had grabbed him by the hair and pounded his face into a wall several times.
According to Curtis, Fryar hurt himself falling.
These suits pose tremendous hurdles. The code of silence among jail gaurds has kept guards from talking about what they have witnessed. The witnesses, then, are the convicted criminals themselves. Not only are they inherently untrustworthy, but they are often poor speakers, due to lack of education, mental illness, or learning disability. Winning these cases is an almost insurmountable task, says Walker of MCLS, which is not involved in these cases but often represents prisoners in similar suits. The legal deck is stacked.
Fryar had another obstacle: he was not allowed to present the surrounding scandal of the sheriffs department under Sheriff Richard Rouse in the late 1990s. The remaining trials will bring in the broader context of the department, Goguen says.
There is plenty to use. Rouse, previously a state representative and county clerk, was appointed by William Weld to replace Robert Rufo as Suffolk County sheriff in 1996. He hired old friends with little or no law-enforcement experience for top posts, including John Haack as superintendent of South Bay. Rouse also hired his boyhood buddy Brian Byrnes as his second-in-command, despite his total lack of relevant experience. Byrnes staunchly resisted calls to upgrade South Bays horribly inadequate video monitoring systems which did not actually record, and which included no cameras in the elevators.
Rouse moved his own office out of South Bay and into the county courthouse downtown, and was seldom seen at the prisoner facilities. Under the lax oversight of Rouse and his top staff, conditions were ripe for officers so inclined to abuse their authority, the 2002 Stern Commission report concluded.
And they did, as evidenced by the revelations of coerced sex, illegal strip-searches, prisoner abuse at the Nashua Street Jail, and harassment of Bruce Baron.
In most of those cases, the public learned the truth and the victims received some compensation only because of civil suits, like the ones being brought by the South Bay prisoners.
Sheriff Cabrals office has acknowledged, in general terms, problems of the past, and has done much to change its policies and procedures. But Cabral is doing everything she can to stand in the way of the civil suits. (Cabral would not speak to the Phoenix for this story.) Department attorneys have filed motions to get the suits dismissed, claiming that the prisoners cant sue until they exhaust the departments own grievance process. Goguen counters that those who tried to use that process were punished, and that the grievance process was so poorly managed that it was, effectively, no process at all.
Indeed, this very Catch-22 was noted by the Stern Commission. The prisoner never formally exhausts administrative procedures, its report said, adding that this could, through no fault of the prisoners, preclude the possibility of a civil lawsuit.
And if juries do start awarding cash settlements in those trials, the Commonwealth will most likely step in and settle the remaining cases. Those involved in the litigation believe that the state is using the first handful of trials to test the mood of the juries. If the juries side with the prisoners, expect the state to negotiate a group payment without acknowledging any wrongdoing, or allowing the public to find out what really happened.
Have Things Changed?
Former prisoners tell a story, supposedly witnessed by a prisoner on kitchen duty, of Andrea Cabrals first day on the job, after Governor Paul Celluci picked her to clean up the department. At the start of each eight-hour shift that day, they say, Cabral addressed all of the guards starting work. She told them that from now on, she wanted everything reported no covering for other guards, no lies, no looking the other way.
True or apocryphal, the story spread quickly throughout the South Bay prisoner population. The department also rewrote its use-of-force policies and improved the grievance process. According to prisoners and other observers, the most blatant abuses have stopped.
But if there is no punishment for the misdeeds, whats to stop them from happening again? The Suffolk DAs office has had no interest in prosecuting guards, although in many cases they were simply unable no state law forbade jail guards from having sex with prisoners, for instance.
After the scandals hit the press, the sheriffs department started handing down punishments, but has had trouble making them stick against union opposition. Cabral was quoted in 2003 complaining that, You fire them, they sue you, and they say, You didnt tell me I couldnt trade peroxide for sex.
Of 23 guards fired or disciplined for serious misconduct between 1999 and 2002, seven had their punishments reversed in arbitration reversed by the states union-stacked Civil Service Commission. In fact, one of the four commissioners is Daniel J. ONeil, former president of the statewide prison guard union.
And Cabral has sent mixed signals in her actions regarding Sheila Porter, the former South Bay nurse now suing the department. Porter claims that Cabral had her fired for cooperating with the FBI in its investigation of alleged prisoner abuse in 2003. Cabral denies the claim, but has hardly sounded like she welcomed the FBI inquiry.
She has also hardly acted like someone eager for the truth to come out in the 55 cases of alleged prisoner abuse. Certainly she wouldnt be thrilled at facing another multimillion-dollar settlement, for actions that preceded her. But if shes serious about ending the abuses, the truth has to come first.
David S. Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix. Reprinted in PLN with permission. PLN has reported extensively on corruption and abuse in the Boston jail system and Massachusetts Department of Corrections.]
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