Inmates accuse Souza guards of retaliation

Lawmakers, after prison visit, call for independent investigation

THE STATE’S MOST SECURE prison facility has turned into a war zone since a group of inmates attacked and severely injured three corrections officers on January 10.

Staff at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley responded by locking down the entire facility, which houses  around 700 inmates, for more than two weeks. Officials also removed six inmates from the north-side unit, where the attack took place, and referred the matter to the Worcester County district attorney’s office. No charges have been filed.

Prisoners say correctional officers have retaliated with unprovoked attacks, beating, choking, and tasing them. They also say guard dogs, brought in by a tactical team, have bitten them after they have been stripped to their boxers. Three inmates — Tamik Kirkland, Carl Larocque, and Robert Silva-Prentice — filed a legal complaint against Baker administration and prison officials in Suffolk Superior Court on Friday, alleging their right to counsel was denied when correctional officers blocked access to their attorneys and confiscated legal paperwork.

In the complaint, Silva-Prentice alleges that more than 10 tactical officers used stun guns to beat him and his roommate in their cell in an unprovoked attack, after which they were denied calls to their attorneys and access to their legal paperwork. He was eventually allowed to see his attorney, Kathryn Karczewska Ohren, on January 29.

Victoria Kelleher, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which is representing the three inmates along with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said she was prevented from going inside the prison after the lockdown.

“This is when they needed their attorneys the most,” she said. “They couldn’t even place a phone call about what was going on inside.”

Attorney and client phone calls were allowed to begin again on January 24, two weeks after the attack. Inmates, however, say they are allowed outside their cells only 15 minutes a day, so they are faced with a choice between showering and talking to their family or attorney.

Cara Seville, a spokeswoman for the Department of Correction, said the agency has not yet received the lawsuit and does not comment on pending litigation.

“We will, however, vigorously defend all actions and decisions necessary to maintain the safety of staff, inmates, and visitors at the Commonwealth’s only maximum security prison,” Seville said. She added that operations at Souza-Baranowski are returning to normal.

Corrections officers are allowed to use reasonable force to stop an inmate from escaping, assaulting officers, or threatening the safety of another prisoner.

 “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,” said Seville. “Every effort was made to provide attorneys with reasonable access to their clients as soon as safety and security were restored.”

Sidney Hayes’ brother Tony Gaskins was transferred to Souza about a month ago from MCI-Norfolk. Hayes said she’s been able to talk to her brother, who describes chaos and has witnessed fighting at the facility. “He told me he’s witnessed guards shooting into cells at inmates,” she said on Monday. “If my brother dies, I’m holding someone accountable.” She also said Gaskins watched a fellow inmates get tased and bitten by dogs. “He was definitely scared,” Hayes said of the call.

On Sunday, Sens. Jamie Eldridge of Acton and Pat Jehlen of Somerville along with Reps. Mike Connolly of Cambridge, Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton, and Mary Keefe of Worcester spoke with 13 inmates over the course of a six-hour, unannounced visit. Six were interviewed separated by glass, six were interviewed in person, and a final prisoner, who claims he was injured by a correctional officer, was interviewed in the medical unit.

Several of the lawmakers called for an independent investigation of what happened at the prison facility. “We need a clear message from Gov. Charlie Baker on how we’re dealing with prisoners right now. We haven’t seen that since the 2018 criminal justice bill,” said Eldridge.

“In my 18 years representing Shirley, and therefore Souza, it has always been a violent place, with a difficult culture and limited education, mental health, and work access and opportunities,” said Eldridge. “Such change needs to come from the top – the governor and the Legislature.”

While the union representing correctional officers blamed the attack on the Latin Kings gang and attributed it to more lenient procedures allowed under the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018, Eldridge said he saw little evidence that the law has changed much of anything for prisoners or correctional officers.

Eldridge described the inmate in the medical wing with his eye bulging around its socket. He also said inmates told him about bibles, family photos, and legal documents being removed from their cells and not returned.

“If we’re trying to reduce tensions at the DOC, why have a collective punishment approach?” said Eldridge.

The lawmakers say they were told by inmates that the tactical teams going into Souza are comprised of officers from county facilities who wear Kevlar vests, masks, and no name tags. Connolly said the lack of identification is concerning for inmates who may want to file a grievance against guards.

Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, talks about deteriorating conditions at the state’s maximum security prison. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

Elizabeth Matos of Prisoners’ Legal Services said the organization has interviewed at least 50 inmates who were either attacked or not allowed to make calls to counsel. At least six of those have been bitten by dogs brought in by the tactical teams. The organization has spoken to four others that have attempted suicide and visited seven hospitalized prisoners.

Eldridge said that prison administrators on Sunday said an inmate must have jumped toward the dogs to suffer dog bites, an explanation that he said makes “no sense at all.” He said that legislators will continue to visit the facility. As of press time, Boston Rep. Liz Miranda was at the prison.

Meet the Author

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.

Sarah Coughlin of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers said one of her clients told her guards have shut off surveillance cameras and beaten inmates. She said one client was not able to get his ribs checked by a doctor after an alleged beating from a guard. “We’re calling for an outside investigation immediately,” she said.