Corrections union pulls criminal justice law into Souza brawl debate

Advocates counter that reform bill has no connection to unrest

The union representing prison corrections officers is pointing to the state’s massive criminal justice reform bill, enacted in 2018, as the cause of violence at the state’s maximum security prison, which is entering day five of lockdown after three corrections officers were hospitalized in a prison brawl.

“This is a direct result from the recently enacted Criminal Justice Reform Act legislation, which was promulgated by inmate rights groups and activists,” wrote Guy Glodis, spokesman for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union.

The Department of Correction says a guard at MCI-Souza-Baranowski in Shirley was surrounded and attacked by inmates on Friday morning, suffering head injuries. Two other responding officers were also injured.

One of the guards remains hospitalized, and the union said injuries included broken jaw and head trauma. WCVB has shown surveillance video, released through the Department of Correction, showing one officer being jumped.

Lizz Matos, of the advocacy group Prisoners’ Legal Services, fired back that the legislation had no influence on the incident, calling the insinuation “wrong and irresponsible,” and “damaging.” She added that the reforms have barely been implemented by the Department of Correction at Souza.

“To start, the DOC has been very resistant to implementing the law, and conditions for prisoners in SBCC (Souza) have not changed significantly since its passage,” she wrote in a statement. “MCOFU [the union] complains that limiting the use of solitary confinement and increasing programming directly inspires and encourages violence against staff.”

The bill includes reforms aimed at reducing solitary confinement stays in prisons along with a slew of other initiatives like diversion programs for low-level offenders and expungement for some offenses if the perpetrator was under 21.

The corrections officers’ union claims that attacks on staff are up 150 percent in the past year at the Shirley prison, which houses more than 1,000 inmates.

Glodis says the law gives inmates more rights, freedom, housing, and tier time to plan violent attacks. “This allowed inmates to manipulate the system and engage in violent action, increase gang activity, intimidation and assaults on officers and other inmates,” he says.

He told the Boston Herald requiring that people in solitary confinement be allowed more time out of their cells means that there must be more oversight by guards.

But last winter, former prisoners and prisoner advocates testified on Beacon Hill that the new law doesn’t do much for most inmates that go to solitary confinement, and that the Department of Correction should reserve the punishment only for extreme violence offenses.

Several outlets are reporting that the attacks were carried out by members of the Latin Kings gang, a group that Massachusetts jail administrators are trying to break up, according to an expose by MassLive’s Steph Solis.

The Worcester District Attorney’s Office and Massachusetts State Police are investigating the incident. Six inmates were removed from the unit over the weekend and face discipline. During lockdown, visits to inmates are restricted, and they’re often limited to their units.

The situation drew the attention of Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov.  Karyn Polito, who on Sunday visited the hospitalized officers, and posted about it later on Twitter.

Souza is no stranger to violence. In August, five guards were injured, with four hospitalized while the prison was on lockdown. In 2017, 15 prisoners were indicted on several charges in connection to a riot where a housing unit was destroyed with makeshift weapons.

Easton state Rep. Claire Cronin, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee and helped write the Criminal Justice Reform Act, expressed her concern for the injured officers.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

“I have reached out to the correction officers union,” Cronin said. “This matter should be properly investigated to unearth all facts contributing to the unprovoked attack on our correctional officers. The investigation should include a thorough review of the circumstances leading up to the attack.”

Prisoners’ Legal Services and the union have said they welcome meeting with state legislators about the incident and discussing what it means for the safety of the prison.