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Former Mass. corrections officer wins $2.8M in discrimination case against state

The CO worked at the prison for about 24.5 years before retiring in 2015, a result of a racially hostile environment at the facility, according to court documents

Shirley Jail

Massachusetts Department of Corrections

By Luis Fieldman

SHIRLEY, Mass. — A former corrections officer at the Shirley prison recently won $2.8 million in a discrimination case against the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, which runs the state’s prisons.

Eric Smith, an Oakham resident and former lieutenant at MCI-Shirley, filed the lawsuit in October 2016 in Middlesex Superior Court. After a jury trial that concluded last week, a verdict on Oct. 20 found that he proved his claims that the Department of Correction subjected him to a hostile work environment based on his race.

The jury also found Smith, who is Black, suffered retaliation for voicing his discrimination concerns.

The jury trial lasted from Oct. 10 to Oct. 20. The jury’s verdict in favor of Smith brought an end to the seven-year civil case last week and awarded Smith a total of $2,860,387.78.

Smith was represented by attorney Michael Shea. A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections did not immediately return a request for comment.

Smith worked at the prison for about 24.5 years and worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant before retiring in July 2015, a result of a racially hostile environment at the facility, according to court documents.

The “impetus” of the lawsuit came from a famous photo known as “The Soiling of Old Glory,” a photograph that won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for its depiction of a white teenager assaulting a Black man during the Boston busing crisis, according to Shea.

In the photograph, the teen is holding a flagpole bearing the American flag and appears to be attempting to spear the Black man while being held by another man.

This photograph spelled the beginning of the end of a career that spanned two-and-a-half decades for Smith as a corrections officer, according to court filings.

“That (photograph) was the heart of the case,” Shea said on Friday. “It led him to say, ‘Enough is enough. I can’t take it anymore. I’ve got to complain.’”

Around Jan. 17, 2015, over Martin Luther King Day weekend — a holiday often referred to by white correctional officers as “James Earl Ray Day” — Smith found the photograph on a breakroom computer, according to Smith’s lawsuit. The reference is to the man who shot and killed the civil rights leader in 1968.

This was often referred to as a “screensaver incident” in court filings.

The event was the first in a series that escalated tensions among staff that Smith oversaw and concerns raised with his supervisors were mostly ignored, court filings show.

Shea said that, during the trial this month, a quote he often heard from Department of Corrections leadership was that it was the “wrong picture for the wrong day.”

“That was the theme of the case,” Shea said.

There were about 10 other “racially charged” photographs depicting Ferguson, Missouri, on the same computer, according to court documents.

After contacting the prison’s superintendent to report the screensavers on Jan. 20 and 21, by email and a phone call, Smith did not receive a response from his boss.

A few days later, Smith requested the superintendent send out a memo to correctional staff about “racial actions and/or comments and/or insensitivity,” according to court documents.

The supervisor told Smith he was busy and that Smith had the authority to address “any derogatory comments” so long as he reported a specific incident, sent a confidential report and told the superintendent what actions Smith took.

When Smith was then told he would not be attending an annual professional seminar that he’d attended for many years, he expressed concern that the decision represented retaliation for past complaints made by Smith.

“(Smith) was told to not open up a can of worms by complaining about this decision,” court filings show.

From then on, colleagues of Smith became confrontational and often showed disrespect.

Shea noted that the Shirley prison is the only level six prison in the state, meaning that it houses the “most violent, dangerous inmate population in Massachusetts.”

“They have to rely on each other,” Shea said of corrections officers. “If fellow co-workers don’t have your back, you are in very big trouble,”

He was called a “rat” and told he should “watch [my] back.” Subordinates disrespected Smith openly and was told by one officer that he was “barely a lieutenant” in the presence of co-workers and inmates, according to the documents.

Smith repeatedly asked for help and protection during separate interviews with an investigator hired by the superintendent and with a member of internal affairs and a union steward.

“(Smith) stated that there was much tension among staff and that he feared that the tension would rise to the level of physical altercations among staff,” according to court documents.

In another instance, Smith walked into his office to find a caricature drawing of him pinned above his desk. The caricature was drawn to be thinking “This ain’t Concord!” — a reference to when Smith worked at Concord prison and lodged a complaint against the Department of Correction.

Corrections officers used name-calling and avoided or ignored Smith. In one instance, Smith was working as the shift second-in-command and a medical situation arose that he responded to. When he asked two lieutenants at the scene about who discovered the emergency, “neither lieutenant verbally responded and one rolled his eyes.”

“(Smith) felt humiliated in front of his co-workers,” the documents state.

Working at the prison became so unbearable that Smith decided to retire on July 2, 2015.

Shea described Smith as “very soft-spoken” who became very emotional at trial — “which I can’t blame him.”

Smith wept softly after the jury returned a verdict in his favor — “But crying happiness that it’s over and happy that he was vindicated,” Shea said.

The jury trial lasted from Oct. 10 to Oct. 20. The jury’s verdict in favor of Smith brought an end to the seven-year civil case last week.

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