After attacks, legislators allege lack of oversight and control at Mass. prison
“No one should be assaulted in a prison. Correctional officers should not be assaulted. ... It speaks to a lack of control and a lack of oversight.”
LANCASTER, Mass. — Food tainted by rodents, staff beating inmates and claims of a toxic prison culture are a few of the allegations being made by public officials about the state of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in the wake of recent violence at the prison.
Massachusetts state legislators who visited the Lancaster facility in recent weeks raised concerns about the safety, hygiene and health of prisoners at the maximum-security prison. Their trips to Souza-Baranowski followed an inmate-led attack on correction officers on Jan. 10, which hospitalized two of the guards and led, some inmates allege, to subsequent retaliation from a special operations tactical team stationed at the prison.
Lindsay Sabadosa, a state representative in Hampshire County, visited the facility twice this month, both times with State Sen. James Eldridge. During an unannounced trip to the facility at the beginning of February, she spoke with an inmate who said he was stomped on by prison staff. The prisoner told Sabadosa he was treated at a Leominster hospital after his eye socket was damaged, according to her.
“We knew that that was what we were going to see,” she said, “so when you see that, you just have an enormous amount of frustration that this is what our prison system has come to.”
The state representative was one of five legislators to visit the prison on Feb. 2. Eldridge chose to do so after he received dozens of calls and emails from inmates and their loved ones claiming “a universal punishment response to the January 10th attack,” according to a statement from his office.
He and Sabadosa, as well as state legislators Mike Connolly, Mary Keefe and Patricia Jehlen, met with 15 prisoners for six hours on their first visit. Eldridge said he heard reports that the facility’s tactical team had beat inmates with “fisted gloves,” used dogs to intimidate them and deployed pepper spray and tasers on prisoners inside their cells.
Sabadosa said four prisoners they conducted in-person interviews with alleged witnessing assaults and provided details about the incidents, though none claimed to be attacked themselves. The state representative also had non-contact communications with the inmate who accused the prison staff of stomping on him, she said.
“No one should be assaulted in a prison. Correctional officers should not be assaulted. Prisoners should not be assaulted,” Sabadosa said. “It speaks to a lack of control and a lack of oversight.”
On state legislator’s Feb. 7 trip to the facility, they spoke with several more inmates who said they were either assaulted or that they witnessed someone else being attacked, according to Sabadosa. Roughly 30 inmates were interviewed, Eldridge said.
“We talked to so many,” Sabadosa said. “We saw Taser burns. We saw dog bites. We saw so much evidence of suicide attempts: cut wrists, ligature marks.”
The state representative also noticed hygiene and health issues at the facility, she said.
Sabadosa claimed that when she walked through one of the cell blocks, she saw blood in inmates’ rooms and unknown liquids on the floor. She also heard a report of an epileptic prisoner who was resting on the top of a bunkbed in his cell when he had a seizure, fell off bed and laid in his own blood for an extended period of time.
There were other reports of flooding at the facility, Sabadosa said. State Rep. Chynah Tyler, who visited Souza-Baranowski on Jan. 31, alleged she saw “blackened-colored floors” during her trip and heard from prisoners that they were forced to use personal items to clear water from their cells.
“The cells are disgusting,” Sabadosa said. “I was just really surprised how dirty the cell block was in general.”
Prisoners reported being denied access to medications, “basic hygiene products” and showers for more than a week as well, according to Tyler. Inmates told her the facility’s food supply was contaminated by rodents and that they went without uniforms for two weeks, she said.
“One expressed to me that for weeks he had been walking around the facility in his underwear,” Tyler said in a statement.
Three inmates who filed a civil lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston claimed prison staff took away their legal materials and limited access to their attorneys following the attack on the correction officers and the subsequent lockdown that last around three weeks.
On Jan. 21, the tactical team searched inmates’ cells for drugs, weapons and other contraband, during which time, prisoners’ belongings were taken away and returned four days later, according to Stephen Kenneway, superintendent of the prison.
The inmate telephone system was also turned off for two weeks, and contact between attorneys and prisoners was suspended. Non-contact visits with lawyers were reinstated a week after the Jan. 10 attack, and full visitation rights were returned by Jan. 24, Kenneway said during a hearing last week about to the lawsuit.
The Massachusetts Department of Correction called the inmates’ complaints “moot," as the services have been resumed, according to court documents filed by the agnecy. The department urged the court to deny injunctive relief to the three inmates after they submitted an emergency motion on Jan. 31.
Authorities have said determining how long to limit prisoners’ visitation rights after an emergency is up to the discretion of administrative officials who are tasked with maintaining people’s safety at the prison.
“Due to the nature of DOC’s sole maximum security facility, every day presents a possible changing situation,” the department said in its court filings. “No one at DOC wants to limit an inmate’s access to his attorney or to the courts, even temporarily, but the safety of the inmates, staff, and visitors must always be paramount.”
Programs aimed at preparing prisoners for re-entry into society after finishing their sentences were also restricted due the lockdown, according to state legislators.
The facility’s superintendent told Tyler that the current prison population has spent more time in programming compared to any other populace at Souza-Baranowski in recent years, according to the state representative. However, services were limited after the Jan. 10 attack, and prisoners were not told when their regular programs would resume, she alleged.
“There’s no programming for most of these men. They’re locked in their cells 24 hours a day. Anybody would go crazy," Sabadosa said.
Inmates at Souza-Baranowski also alleged racial slurs “were constantly being directed” at them leading up to the Jan. 10 attack, according to Tyler. The prisoners expressed concerns over the lack of diversity among the prison staff as well, she said.
“[The] Black and Latinx prison population noted when compared to their non-Black and non-Latinx counterparts, there were disparities in the treatment of both groups,” Tyler said.
Eldridge noted that Souza-Baranowski falls into a district he has represented for more than 18 years and that there is a toxic culture at the prison. He alleged Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s response to the recently alleged violence against the inmates has not been adequate.
Sabadosa has called for an independent investigation into conditions at the facility, and Tyler requested in a letter to the governor that he begin to have access to a direct live feed into the facility’s cameras.
“I strongly disagree with the Baker-Polito administration’s collective punishment action in response to the January 10th attacks on correction officers and believe that it makes the prison less safe for all the SBCC staff and the prisoners,” Eldridge said in his statement. “Whether correction officers like it or not, I represent not only the people doing the brave and difficult job of working at SBCC, but also the prisoners and both sides of the story must be heard.”
Baker has said he has faith in DOC’s ability to properly look into the accusations, and DOC officials have stated that any violations are thoroughly investigated. Inmates have been allowed to file grievances, which are then processed by the facility, authorities said.
“DOC welcomes the opportunity to meet with legislators," a DOC spokesperson said.
Though, not everyone has appreciated the state legislators’ allegations.
The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union wrote in a letter to Eldridge that it is “deeply disappointed” with the state senator’s “actions and comments” in the aftermath of the Jan. 10 attack on prison staff. The group alleged Eldridge’s response has largely been one of concern for the inmates, and officials claimed he has not addressed the safety of officers.
The executive board of the union also accused Eldridge “of grandstanding to the media and prison rights advocates."
The union wrote it would be happy to meet with the state senator to discuss policies to protect officers, though. Eldridge said in his statement he has also reached out to the legislative representative of the group to organize a meeting between correction officers and legislators.
“We are confident that our Officers follow the strict policies set forth by the Department of Corrections and Massachusetts General Laws,” the union said in a statement to MassLive. “Our officers conduct themselves in a professional manner day in and day out in some of the most dangerous environments imaginable.”
The prisoners who have alleged being assaulted claimed they were not involved in the Jan. 10 attack on the correction officers. Many of the inmates connected to the incident were transferred to other facilities, Eldridge said. Other prisoners were screened to determine appropriate housing placements within Souza-Baranowski, according to DOC court filings.
In her letter to the governor, Tyler asked Baker to provide her office with a list of prisoners “displaced from their units” and name those transferred to out of Souza-Baranowski since Jan. 10. The state representative added that she has little confidence in DOC’s management of the situation.
“Among the testimonies I received were concerns that inmates were purposely moved into the wrong units,” she wrote. “Evidently, these actions taken by the DOC were misguided.”
All the accusations of assault Sabadosa heard from prisoners were allegedly committed by the tactical team, Sabadosa said. State Rep. Nika Elugardo, who visited the facility on Feb. 7, said she has “outstanding questions about the tactical team” and how it is held accountable for its actions.
“They look like they’re paramilitary quite honestly,” Sabadosa said. “They have dogs. They have guns that shoot rubber bullets. They have tasers, guns, pepper spray.”
Eldridge, Elugardo and Sabadosa all expressed sympathy for both the inmates and the correction officers at Souza-Baranowski. Sabadosa said she noticed many prison staff members who have good rapports with prisoners, adding that the focus of discussions on how to improve prison conditions should be on the safety of employees as well as those incarcerated.
Many of the inmates have some form of mental illness and past trauma, Elugardo said, but they possess no tools to cope with those issues. They then turn to prison guards as their enemies.
“They’re enemies to them,” the state representative said. “All day long, the COs have feces thrown at them.”
Elugardo does not blame the inmates or prison staff for the conditions at the facility, she said, but instead, she points to how the criminal justice system operates as a whole.
“It’s a ridiculous position to pit ourselves against ourselves," the state representative said. “They’re working in a system designed to fail people.”
Stephen Kenneway, superintendent of the prison, detailed numerous violent incidents at the facility during a hearing Thursday about the lawsuit. More than 300 assaults have been reported at Souza-Baranowski since he became director in February 2019, and there have been roughly 600 declared emergencies as well as 240 instances of “self-injurious behavior.”
Most recently, a stabbing was reported at the facility. A prisoner also started a fire in his cell last week after assaulting a correction officer and throwing urine in her face.
The superintendent said the Jan. 10 attack on correction officers was deliberately planned and gang-related. Video released by DOC showed one prisoner punching a correction officer in the face and other inmates joining in on the assault.
Kenneway also claimed that inmates continue to plan attacks on employees at the facility. Threats of murder, rape and hostage-taking were made against staff during the lockdown, according to him.
Souza-Baranowski holds the worst prisoners the state confines, Kenneway said, as the facility is the lone maximum-security prison in Massachusetts.