SHIRLEY – Tensions inside the MCI-Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center have apparently reached a boiling point, with prisoners telling state officials that they are being mistreated by corrections officers.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge joined four other government officials in a six-hour visit to the prison on Sunday, Feb. 2 to interview inmates and observe conditions of the facility. Eldridge was joined by Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of the First Hampshire District, Sen. Patricia Jehlen of the Second Middlesex District, Rep. Mike Connolly of the 26th Middlesex District and Rep. Mary Keefe of the 15th Worcester District.
The visit was prompted by an assault on three corrections officers in the prison on Jan. 10.
Eldridge has been critical of Souza-Baranowski in the past, calling it “one of the most dangerous prisons in the commonwealth” last month.
A state Department of Correction spokesman did not directly respond top Eldridge’s charges, but did defend the state’s management of the facility.
The senator from Acton who represents Shirley noted that attacks similar to the one last month happen annually and was “disappointed” that the DOC hasn’t made good on the inmate-benefiting promises of a criminal justice system reform law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in April 2018.
Eldridge said that, since the recent attack, he’s received letters from prisoners and their family members claiming the inmates have been mistreated.
When Eldridge sat down with four inmates last Sunday, they told him that the DOC sent in tactical teams of highly-trained officers to intimidate prisoners in response to the Jan. 10 attack.
Eldridge said the inmates were sprayed with pepper spray, punched and tased in their “lower extremities” before being forcibly removed from their cells to be scared by attack dogs and then moved to other cells. Eldridge said that inmates who weren’t involved in the Jan. 10 attack were also subjected to this treatment.
“I think it really builds up resentment amongst the prisoners,” he added. “What kind of message is that sending to other prisoners?”
Eldridge added that two prisoners he spoke to had injuries to their wrists and face from being assaulted by corrections officers. Another prisoner who saw an attack on another inmate by the tactical team told Eldridge that he was “scared for his life” and thought he was going to die. Another prisoner told Eldridge that the attacks caused him to lose “complete hope” in the facility.
Eldridge believes that Steve Kennaway, superintendent of Souza-Baranowski is still “trying to improve conditions” in the prison by offering educational programs to inmates, but the presence of the tactical team did not help. He believed that decision of having that team at the jail was made by someone higher in authority than Kennaway.
“It’s very counterproductive in reducing tensions in the jail,” Eldridge added.
The inmate interviews also alerted Eldridge to the fact that the Jan. 10 attack happened because one of the officers who was assaulted had a “longstanding problem” with certain inmates in the facility unit he was assigned to. The prisoners also denied that the attack was gang-related.
“As someone who visits jails frequently, I felt very torn after the visit,” Eldridge said. “I do think the superintendent is trying to improve conditions, but I’m frustrated because the DOC responded with such an exaggerated response. What’s happened over the past few weeks is unprecedented and I fear that things will get worse with more assaults or prisoner suicides.”
Eldridge said he told inmates more legislators would be visiting them soon out of concern for their safety and the actions taken by the DOC. He would also be submitting the notes he took from his visit to the DOC.
Cara Savelli, media coordinator for the DOC, said the department will “vigorously defend all actions and decisions necessary to maintain the safety of staff, inmates, and visitors at the Commonwealth’s only maximum security prison.”
“Operations at Souza-Baranowski are returning to normal following serious assaults on correctional officers,” the statement reads. “While some privileges have been restricted and some inmates were moved as staff searched the maximum security facility for weapons and other contraband, this process was necessary to prevent further violence. Every effort was made to provide attorneys with reasonable access to their clients as soon as safety and security were restored.”