Concerns for MCI-Souza-Baranowski prison safety mixed

Sen. Eldridge shows disappointment while local residents express trust in DOC safety practices

LANCASTER, MA. - JANUARY 10: A Corrections Officer stationed at the entrance to the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center waves an employee through the checkpoint on January 10, 2020 in Lancaster, Massachusetts. (Photo By Mary Schwalm/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
LANCASTER, MA. – JANUARY 10: A Corrections Officer stationed at the entrance to the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center waves an employee through the checkpoint on January 10, 2020 in Lancaster, Massachusetts. (Photo By Mary Schwalm/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

SHIRLEY – With the MCI-Souza-Baranowski maximum-security prison still in lockdown as of Wednesday after three correction officers were beaten by inmates last Friday, state officials and local residents have conflicting feelings about how safe the jail is for those inside and outside its walls.

The attack itself involved multiple inmates assaulting a correction officer at around 10:45 a.m. Two other officers tried to intervene but were also assaulted by inmates.

All three officers were hospitalized and six inmates were removed from the prison’s general population housing unit to face discipline. The prisoners who attacked the officers are suspected to be members of the Latin Kings gang, but the incident remains under investigation.

011020 Surveillance video from the Prison Guard assault at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, MA. Image courtesy Massachusetts Department of Correction

Guy Glodis, a spokesman for the the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, told the State House News Service that the assault is a “direct result” of a criminal justice system reform law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in April 2018.

“This legislation grants inmates more rights, freedom, housing, and tier time,” Glodis added in a statement to the news service. “This has allowed inmates to manipulate the system, and engage in violent action, increased gang activity, intimidation and assaults on officers and other inmates. The Criminal Justice Reform Act legislation makes it inherently difficult for officers to do their job, and provide the security necessary, to make institutions more safe and secure.”

Glodis added that attacks on officers and staff of the 17 jails overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Correction have increased by 150% over the last year.

State Rep. Claire Cronin, who helped write the law, said in a statement issued Monday that she was “deeply saddened” by the “unprovoked attack” on the officers and believed it should be “properly investigated.”

“The investigation should include a thorough review of the circumstances leading up to the attack,” she added.

Someone who also sees trouble with the law is Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who said on Monday that he had a “constructive conversation” with union representative Kevin Flanagan about the assault.

Eldridge, who has represented Shirley as part of the Middlesex and Worcester districts for 16 years, called MCI-Souza-Baranowski “one of the most dangerous prisons in the commonwealth,” noting how there’s an assault similar to the one last week almost every year.

The prison is also no stranger to shocking inmate deaths.

John J. Geoghan, a Catholic priest who was serving time at MCI-Souza-Baranowski after being found guilty of child molestation in 2002, was strangled by a fellow inmate in 2004.

Aaron Hernandez, former tight end for the New England Patriots who was serving a life sentence at MCI-Souza-Baranowski for the first-degree murder of Odin Lloyd, died by suicide in his cell in 2017.

Eldridge also noticed how some people have difficulty with the reform law.

“I think there’s sort-of a frustration with that law,” he explained. “It’s providing more rights to prisoners and focusing on transparency. A number of officers are not happy about that. The idea is that the law would reduce tension in the prisons, but the Department of Correction has not enforced the terms of the law.”

Eldridge said that he’s been to multiple state prisons in the past four months and hasn’t seen the tension-easing terms of the law put into effect, leading him to feel “a bit disappointed” in the DOC. He added that more educational programs offered to the inmates would be something he’d like to see from the DOC and Gov. Baker.

As far as local authority goes, they leave internal danger up to the prison staff.

Shirley Town Administrator Michael McGovern said on Tuesday that members Shirley Police Department usually “do not interact” with emergencies inside the prison.

Instead, local police officers are used as law enforcement outside the prison walls.

McGovern and Police Chief Samuel Santiago said those incidents typically involve people driving near the facility, which sits near Route 2, and dropping off drugs for inmates.

Both Santiago and McGovern recalled an incident that happened on Jan. 9, 2019, where police were called to stop a car driving by the prison that was eventually found to have drugs inside.

“It happens once in a while, but we don’t get involved unless they call us,” Santiago said. “The state has jurisdiction inside the jail.”

Some Shirley residents are well-aware of the violence that goes on at MCI-Souza-Baranowski but have different feelings about how it impacts their lives.

Pat Atwater, a resident of Church Street, said she heard about an inmate incident at the prison that occurred last fall that she heard “caused a lot of damage.”

Despite this and hearing about conditions inside the jail, she said she’s “not worried” about any escalation or inmates escaping into town.

“The officers seem to be get right on it,” she said.

A resident of Shirley, who only wished to be identified as Lee, said that he has a son who was a corrections officer at MCI-Souza-Baranowski and “couldn’t wait to get out.” Lee referred to the prison as “the toilet of the Earth,” yet still showed little concern for escalation.

“I’m not worried,” he said. “I’m legally armed and have great security at home.”