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Massachusetts Jail Conditions Unconstitutional Says U.S. Department of Justice

A report released by the U.S. Justice Department (USJD), on May 1, 2008, concluded that conditions in the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction (HOC) in Massachusetts violated the constitutional rights of prisoners in its custody. The report detailed a variety of unsanitary and environmentally unsafe living conditions as well as inadequate medical care for mental health patients.

Suspected deficiencies in the jail were brought to the attention of then-Governor Mitt Romney on November 17, 2006. The inspection required two tours conducted in early 2007.

One area of concern addressed the inappropriate use of restraints on prisoners in the jail. Generally, restraint chairs and beds are intended for violent, non-compliant prisoners. A random review of nine video tapes all showed compliant and cooperative prisoners being placed in 4, 5 and 6-point restraints as a means of punishment by guards. In one case a prisoner actually assisted the guards in applying the restraints.

Even in cases where the use of restraints was justified inspectors determined that prisoners were being held too long and for punitive purposes. The use of restraints has reduced substantially since the inspection.

Part of the blame for the guards’ inappropriate behavior was attributed to management staff. The report details how jail supervisors failed to investigate use-of-force incidents, evaluate incidents of improper or illegal conduct or impose any type of remedial training.
Jail policy did not even require supervisors to sign incident reports. In 2006 the jail conducted a total of 390 investigations for the entire year. Once they were alerted that inspectors were coming 211 investigations were conducted between January and May 2007.

Also of concern was the jail’s inadequate grievance process. Prisoners at the jail often are unable to obtain grievance forms and are required to use their own postage to mail their grievances to the grievance investigator. Even then most grievances either went unanswered or received inadequate replies. During a 90-day period in 2006 records indicate that only 19 grievances were filed by prisoners. An expert consultant to the investigating team called this number “extremely low.” Neither jail has any means for tracking grievances. Consequently, many grievances were lost, especially those pertaining to senior corrections staff.

Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in HOC were over double the national average for similar size jails. Between April 2006 and March 2007 HOC had 233 assaults between prisoners. A reliably reported average for similar jails is 108.

Part of the problem is that HOC is overpopulated and understaffed. Many of the prisoners are forced to live in the gym. Inspectors noted that the restroom area in the gym is a blind spot and provides ample opportunity for illegal and assaultive behavior out of sight of the guards.

But it is not as if the guards are anxious to do their jobs. During most security checks guards simply did “quick walks up and down the unit,” reads the report. None of the guards observed by inspectors stopped at the cells to check on prisoners’ welfare.

While inspectors admitted that severe overcrowding was a mitigating factor they still determined that the unit classification system was the major source of the problems in HOC. The report reads that “(t)he jail’s poor classification system can be linked to the murder of at least one pre-trial detainee.” This statement refers to a February 2007 incident in which a prisoner awaiting trial was housed with a prisoner who had already been sentenced. The pre-trial detainee was fatally kicked and beaten by his cellmate.

Inspectors found that prisoners were endangered by unsanitary conditions in HOC. Filthy showers, not enough showers, insufficient hot water and exposure to high levels of dust were just a few of the problems.

Inspectors also did an immediate investigation of complaints by prisoners that areas of the jail were “extremely cold.” Random temperature readings throughout the A-7 unit of the jail confirmed the complaints. Inspectors were also concerned about frequent lockdowns and infrequent changes of clothing and bed linen noting that both practices promote the spread of infectious diseases.

At the time of the inspection guards had no way of manually releasing cell doors. In the event of fire or other emergencies prisoners would literally be trapped in their cells.

Of greatest significance, however, is the fact that 19 pages of the 40-page report addresses the jail’s failure to provide adequate mental health care. At the time of the inspectors’ visit 21% of the total population and 31% of segregated prisoners were on the mental health caseload. Yet psychiatric care was provided on the unit for only 13 hours per week.

Even when care was available those being treated usually suffered from a lack of privacy. As a result of these deficiencies many of the mental health prisoners were inadequately and improperly treated.

Of one dozen mental health patients interviewed by inspectors, half had been confined for over six months, eleven were taking psychotropic medication and the average meeting with a mental health counselor occurred about once every two months.

From screening to release and all processes in between no area was exempt from deficiencies. HOC Deputy Superintendent Jeffrey P. Turco disagrees with much of what the report has to say. He accuses inspectors of ignoring the fact that the jail has been accredited by the American Correctional Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.

Responding to the report Turco wrote, “while the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office management is open to all suggestions to improve our operation, it would be most helpful for purposes of this inquiry if our future discussions could be limited to constitutional minima.”

However, the report’s ultimatum is clear saying, “in the unexpected’ event that we are unable to reach a resolution regarding our concerns, the attorney general may initiate a lawsuit, pursuant to CRIPA.” CRIPA refers to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997. See: U.S. DOJ Civil Rights Division Report. The report is available on PLN’s website.

Additional Sources: Telegram & Gazette

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