SHIRLEY — Prisoners in the medium security section of MCI Shirley remained in lockdown Tuesday while a three-hour protest on March 2 involving more than 400 inmates remains under investigation, according to Department of Correction officials.
Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union spokesmen described the interior climate during the incident as potentially similar to the Shirley prison riot of 1995 that ended up costing taxpayers more than $2 million, they said.
Last week’s incident allegedly occurred because of a memo released by prison Superintendent Michael Thompson that cut free time out of cells in half.
Shortly before noon on March 2, over 400 inmates refused to leave a recreational area. Members of the Inner Perimeter Security Team, a tactical response unit, were called to the scene.
Kelly Nantel, chief of constituency services for the Department of Correction, said inmates from six of 12 housing units had returned inside by mid afternoon. By 4 p.m. 430 others had come inside but had not been locked in,” she said. There are 1,189 inmates in medium security.
”They refused to come in. They were told to return,” Nantel said. “We don’t do business like that. This is an operational issue. We will be doing an investigation, finding what concerns there are and who the leaders are.
”There were no fights, no weapons and no staff assaults,” Nantel said. “The tactical response team is activated by the commissioner during significant incidents.”
Monday, March 6, Nantel said lockdown continued. Inmate activities were canceled, although “core” and medical visits still take place during lockdown.
”Inmates have access to management every day and there is a mechanism to address their issues,” she said. “This type of behavior will not be tolerated.”
Guarino said Monday the union feels Thompson’s decision is related to short staffing at the prison and that the Thursday protest shouldn’t be minimized because it could have led to “something horrific.”
A month prior, on Jan. 27, the Shirley Oracle published an article about staffing shortages at the institution. Sen. Pamela Resor, D-Acton, and Rep. James Eldridge, D-Acton, had toured the prison and had seen what they termed shortages of correctional officers. They were accompanied by corrections union officials who were told to leave. Legislators are the only persons who can visit a prison unannounced.
”At the time, the superintendent ordered us out while (the legislators) went on the tour,” Guarino said. “As a result of that we had an off-site meeting and we talked with the legislators for about two hours.
”We had identified a huge (prison) climate issue,” Guarino said.
Rep. Eldridge confirmed Guarino’s words.
”The thing that was striking when Sen. Resor and I toured the prison is that inmates were out in the yard and no guards were out there, just two recreation officers,” Eldridge said on Tuesday.
”I spoke with one of them, asking how he felt with the reduction (in staff). He was concerned about his safety and from my observations he didn’t seem as prepared as would be a corrections officer,” Eldridge said.
Eldridge said he later met with Corrections Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy and asked her to restore corrections officers to the yard.
”She said she’d look into it,” Eldridge continued. “Obviously, we’re waiting. Being unannounced we could see the problems,” he said. “We’ve been in touch with the commissioner’s liaison and I’m going to be looking to speak with the commissioner this week. I plan to make another unannounced visit of the facility.
”Obviously, I understand the need for more state funds and I’m willing to step up and ask for it in the budget,” said Eldridge.
”Morale has never been lower. The Department of Corrections needs to work very hard to have positive relationships with officers,” he said. “A lot are retiring because of the atmosphere.”
Also on Tuesday, Harris confirmed that inmates were still in lockdown. That generally includes inmates in the maximum security building as a precautionary measure, he said.
”Quite often DOC (Department of Corrections) tries to staff with correctional program officers who aren’t strictly officers,” Harris said. “They used to be titled correctional counselors and the DOC over the years has tried to turn them into officers.
”Over the past three years, the commissioner has allowed a dwindling to 650 officers. It should be 3,800. We’re down statewide,” he continued. “We really think in Shirley they have full intentions of cutting the number of officers in each housing unit to one. Each house has 80 inmates. We came very close to having a situation like 1995.
”Rep. Eldridge has been extremely responsive,” Harris added. “The superintendent gave him a very abbreviated tour. He agreed to attend and address our membership at the War Memorial in Shirley. He did. Sen. Resor sent an aide. It was nice to see true concern from legislators.
”Everyone in the department is living in fear of their jobs,” he said. “This commissioner has made sweeping changes and thinks there is a conspiracy to mistreat inmates. That’s not true. Experienced officers are leaving in droves and she’s terminated a number of them.
”The public has a lot of misconceptions about us,” he said. “We have a pair of handcuffs and a radio. Our only tool is our reasoning powers and the ability to talk with inmates.”