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Massachusetts Settles One of Three Suits Alleging Retaliation by Prison Guards for Assault on One of Their Own

by Harold Hempstead

On February 17, 2023, an assistant to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) signed a settlement with a group of state prisoners, resolving claims they were subjected to retaliation after a January 2020 melee at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC) that sent three guards to the hospital.

The suit is one of three filed by prisoners since the incident. In their complaint, Carl Larocque, Robert Silva-Prentice and Tamik Kirkland, along with the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (ACDL) and the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), detailed for Suffolk County Superior Court how guards denied them and other SBCC prisoners “attorney visits and phone calls for almost three weeks” in retaliation for the incident.

“If you put hands on an officer,” the complaint quoted one guard, “you will all pay.”

The court granted the prisoners a preliminary injunction in February 2020, halting policies of the state Department of Correction (DOC) that restricted them from keeping legal paperwork in their cells and limited opportunities for attorney phone calls and visits, even during business hours. [See: PLN, Apr. 2020, p.26.]

Under the settlement that was reached, SBCC prisoners whose property is seized must get it back in three business days. After that, they have another three business days “to review returned legal property following a cell search, and to convey any issue(s) regarding returned legal property in writing to the SBCC Deputy Superintendent of Operations.”

The volume of legal material permitted in any prisoner’s cell may not exceed one cubic foot without special permission from the prison Superintendent. New legal mail must be delivered to prisoners within three business days. Guards also have that long to transfer material belonging to a prisoner who is moving from one cell to another – and five days when moving from one prison to another.

Prisoners must also be allowed to place calls at their discretion to their attorneys. A “loss of telephone privileges does not include access to attorney calls,” the agreement notes, though in that case there is a limit of two calls per week. That is also the number of attorney calls permitted prisoners held in a Behavior Assessment Unit or Secure Adjustment Unit

DOC agreed “to post a notice on its website of the discontinuance of attorney video calls at SBCC at least ten (10) business days in advance,” also sending notice to ACDL and CPCS. Email communication with attorneys is not to be impeded, though that is not privileged communication. Contact visits must be permitted with attorneys, and if there is no visiting room available when an attorney shows up to see a prisoner, he or she must be allowed to shift to a “non-contact visit.”

Lockdowns may not disrupt attorney-client communication, though they may cause a permissible delay up to three business days. After that, “prisoners shall have access to grievance and informal complaint forms upon request,” according to the agreement, which also provided that prison staff must be trained in the new details. See: Larocque v. Turco, Mass. Super. (Suffolk Cty.), Case No. 2084CV00295.

Two More Suits Still Pending

In addition to that suit settled in state court, two more were filed by prisoners after the incident in federal court for the District of Massachusetts.

Silva-Prentice is also a plaintiff in one, along with fellow prisoner Dionisio Paulino. In their complaint, they alleged that “a squad of at least six (6) armed officers wearing paramilitary uniforms and body armor snuck up on and violently entered the Plaintiffs’ cell,” where they “restrained the Plaintiffs, then proceeded to terrorize, beat, taser, and kick them, pull out their hair, and slam them into concrete walls and a metal doorway while hurling racial, ethnic, and sexual slurs.”

One guard, Cmdr. Mark O’Reilly, reportedly ordered a DOC K-9 to attack Paulino, who was handcuffed and not resisting. The dog bit him repeatedly, tearing out a chunk of the prisoner’s upper thigh. He and Silva-Prentice claimed the guards assaulted them in a spot known as “C-15,” out of range of surveillance cameras.

After filing grievances and the lawsuit over access to legal mail and attorneys, Paulino and Silva-Prentice were allegedly issued bogus disciplinary reports. Both were found guilty and placed in confinement for months – allegedly for nothing more than being non-white, like the prisoners who earlier attacked the guards.

“The Defendants’ true goal,” the complaint concludes, “was to terrorize and beat the Plaintiffs as payback for the acts of other Latino and Black prisoners and to create an atmosphere of terror.”

Plaintiffs survived a motion to dismiss by Defendants on April 11, 2022. The case has not been scheduled for trial, and PLN will report updates as they are available. Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Sibbison, DeJuneas & Allen, LLP and Markham Read Zerner LLC, both in Boston. See: Silva-Prentice v. Turco, USDC (D. Ma.), Case No. 1:21-cv-11580.

The other suit outstanding was filed in the Court by prisoners Dwayne Diggs, Demetrius Goshen, James Jacks, David Jackson, Raphael Rebollo, Luis Saldana, Davongie Stone, Xavier Valentin-Soto and Danavian Daniel. They also claim that guards engaged in “weeks of unprovoked, retaliatory violence,” during which “more than 100 prisoners” suffered “beating and kicking … gouging eyes; grabbing testicles; smashing faces into the ground or wall; deploying Taser guns, pepper ball guns, and other chemical agents; ordering K9s to menace and bite prisoners; and excessively tightening handcuffs and forcing prisoners’ arms into unnatural and painful positions, among other positional torture tactics.”

A guard allegedly stomped Jackson’s head and struck it with a shield at least two times, while the prisoner lay face down on the floor not resisting. The guards also placed him in unnecessarily tight handcuffs, he said, after which they forced him and the other prisoners, who were also cuffed and shackled, “to face the wall and kneel without sitting back on their feet, or resting their head against the wall,” maintaining this “stress position” for “several hours.”

The Court has given Plaintiffs until October 12, 2023, to move for class certification of their suit; PLN will report developments as they unfold. The prisoners are represented by attorneys from Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLS) and global law firm Hogan Lovells. See: Diggs v. Micci, USDC (D. Ma.), Case No. 4:22-cv-40003.

PLS said its data regularly show more staff-on-prisoner assaults at SBCC than any other jail or prison in the state. It added that the “brutality is not perpetuated by a few ‘bad apples’ but a broken system that not only fails to rehabilitate prisoners, but actively harms them physically and psychologically.”

“Over My Dead Body”

After the early 2020 violence at SBCC, then-Gov. Charlie Baker (R) presented state lawmakers a budget that included a $1 million request for a pilot program to outfit SBCC guards with body cameras. The response was fierce and swift.

“Over my dead body will this anti-labor proposal be implemented during my tenure,” vowed Kevin Flanagan, legislative representative for the state Correction Officers Federated Union.

However, he was apparently still breathing when 50 of SBCC’s 450 guards donned cameras to implement the pilot program in November 2022. DOC Commissioner Carol Mici defended the technology, which she said “has been shown to improve safety, provide valuable documentation for evidentiary purposes, resolve officer-involved incidents, and offer a useful training tool for the Department and its officers.”

Meanwhile, filings made in Silva-Prentice’s suit in May 2023 revealed that the federal Department of Justice has investigated the incident at SBCC and taken its findings to a grand jury – so there may be criminal charges for some prison officials if probable cause is found.

“My client testified and I know other prisoners who testified,” said Patty DeJuneas, one of the attorneys for Plaintiffs in the case. “So I feel pretty confident that at least what happened to my client is under investigation.”

The filing was made in motion accusing Defendants of foot-dragging in discovery. But the state countered that the lawsuit has already produced the largest volume of discovery material that “DOC has ever handled,” with “22,000 pages of documents and 49 investigations containing approximately 214 recorded interviews.”

Additional source: WBUR