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Massachusetts Prison Retaliates Against Prisoners for Assault on Guards; Court Grants Preliminary Injunction in Class Action

After January 10, 2020, prisoner riot left three guards injured at Massachusetts’ Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC), prisoners and their loved ones said prisoners were subjected to retaliation, losing their property, being tased, locked down 23 hours a day and denied access to phones and visits. Attorneys and prisoners’ rights groups also claimed they had been unable to contact some of their clients inside the Lancaster maximum-security prison.

“Assaults have been widely reported,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts.

She added that “a number of people” who were beaten by guards then endured further physical abuse after they quizzed guards for a motive behind their behavior.

“When one of their officers is assaulted, the entire prison will pay,” Matos said, reporting what some of SBCC’s nearly 1,000 prisoners had relayed from their guards.

Three guards in Unit N1 were surrounded and assaulted during the January melee. Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union (COFU) President Derek O’Connor said one guard had to “fight his way out,” while another suffered a broken jaw and the last required surgery.

SBCC Superintendent Steven Kenneway immediately put the prison on lockdown. That stretched for 11 days until January 21, 2020, during which time the prison’s remaining guards, in revenge for the attack on their coworkers, subjected inmates to cruel and unusual punishment, a class-action lawsuit filed January 31, 2020, alleges. The lawsuit was filed by the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense lawyers and the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

COFU released a statement placing partial blame for the riot on the state’s Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA), a 2018 law dealing with use of solitary confinement and compassionate release. That law gives prisoners more freedom of movement, which guards say undermines prison order. But state legislators expressed disbelief that CJRA was responsible for the riot.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who co-chairs the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, noted that “the major reform” effort in the law focused on abuse of solitary confinement, while “the prisoners who attacked the correctional officers were in general population.”

“And my understanding is they were part of a gang,” he added. “And so I think that much more has to do with the DOC (Department of Corrections) management than anything we passed in the criminal justice reform law.”

The legislator also accused DOC of paying no more than lip service to the law’s reforms.

“Essentially, none of these reforms have been implemented,” Eldridge continued. “So I’ve visited three prisons so far, and they haven’t been implemented. I’ve sat down with the Baker-Polito administration [GOP Governor Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito] and asked: When is that going to happen? Because — at least my view is — the way you reduce tension in prison is providing more programming, more visitation, and more rights to prisoners.”

Pushing back against Eldridge’s charges, DOC issued a statement claiming its facilities “meet or exceed the requirements of Massachusetts law, including the maximum security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, which houses the most violent and dangerous offenders in the state,” the statement said.

“The inmates at SBCC are volatile and dangerous, as evident from the January 10 attack,” agreed Kenneway, who said there were some 300 assaults at the prison in 2019.

In addition to the lockdown, he had about 100 prisoners moved to other state facilities. Though Kenneway and his guards identified 23 “enemy combatants” who had participated in the riot at SBCC, Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early on February 20, 2020, indicted a total of 16 prisoners on assault charges related to the incident. Early said the men would be arraigned on the charges at a later date.

The Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Committee for Public Counsel Services filed the class-action suit against SBCC on behalf of three named prisoner defendants, claiming that the facility’s “north side has been converted into a ‘super max’ prison where inmates are deprived of all property” and “are now locked in their cells for at least 23.75 hours per day, without access to programming, media, legal materials, or writing materials.”

On February 2, 2020, Eldridge led a group of state legislators to SBCC in a surprise visit to investigate the suit’s claims. Afterward he said he wants to have “a bigger discussion about how do you improve conditions both for the correction officers and the prisoners.”

“There are some who believe that it’s a continued sort of tough on crime approach,” he said. “But I think you actually need to treat prisoners better. Quite honestly, this is a disagreement over a vision for what should be happening in our prisons.”

On February 20, 2020, the second day of a two-day hearing of the case before Suffolk Superior Court Judge Beverly Canone, SBCC prisoner Robert Silva-Prentice testified that his notes from the hearing’s first day had been confiscated by guards, who did not return them in time to prepare for the second day. DOC officials countered in their testimony that Silva-Prentis had actually suffered no harm because his paperwork was eventually returned. But Judge Cannone was not having it.

“The court does not credit this testimony,” she ruled.

Attorney Patricia DeJuneas said that her client, Silva-Prentice – who is one of the three named defendants in the class-action suit – “put himself at risk by speaking publicly about the abuses he suffered at the hands of armed tactical team members.”

In a decision issued February 28, 2020, Cannone granted plaintiffs a preliminary injunction of SBCC policies that restricted prisoners from keeping legal paperwork in their cells and limited their opportunities for attorney phone calls and visits, even during business hours.

“The implementation of the restrictions at issue represents an exaggerated response to the serious security concerns here,” Cannone chided DOC. “The court can think of no greater public interest than the protection of individuals’ sacred constitutional rights.” See: Larocque et v. Turco et al, Suffolk County Superior Court (MA), Case No. 20-00295. 



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Related legal case

Larocque et v. Turco et al