SHIRLEY, Mass. (WBZ NewsRadio) — A group of inmates at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley are alleging civil rights and physical abuses by prison staff in the wake of an attack on correctional officers by a handful of inmates last month.
The controversy began on January 10, when three guards were injured—one of them seriously—an an attack by a group of inmates that forced the maximum-security facility into lockdown.
After that attack, the Boston Globe reported, six inmates were removed from the facility. The paper said no charges have yet been filed against the alleged attackers.
But in a lawsuit filed last week, several inmates claim prison staff have restricted their access to their legal counsel, confiscated paperwork, limited their time outside their cells, and even physically abused them, all allegedly in retaliation for the January 10 assault.
In the lawsuit, MassLive reports, inmates reported being tased, beaten, and choked by correctional officers, as well as bitten by dogs.
On Sunday, five state lawmakers—State Sens. Jamie Eldridge, Pat Jehlen, and Lindsay Sabadosa, and State Reps. Mary Keefe and Mike Connolly—spent six hours visiting the facility, speaking with inmates as well as staff. The Globe reported they were "shaken" by the conditions they found.
Monday morning, Eldridge spoke at a press conference with Massachusetts ACLU Racial Justice Program Director Rahsaan Hall to discuss what he saw and heard from inmates.
Officials from Prisoners Legal Services, the National Association of Social Workers, the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and those with family members at the facility also spoke at the press conference.
State Rep. Jamie Eldridge said some inmates were unable to contact their attorneys, were physically harassed, and were subject to collective punishment.
"If you take a whole prison, and collectively punish everyone, isn’t that going to increase the tension [among] prisoners who had nothing to do with the attack?" Eldridge told The Boston Globe. "There really needs to be more programming, and access to family and phone calls. And that’s my view about how you reduce the tension."
The Massachusetts Department of Corrections told WBZ NewsRadio they had not yet received the lawsuit, and that they would not comment on pending litigation—but that they would "vigorously defend all actions and decisions necessary to maintain the safety of staff, inmates, and visitors at the Commonwealth's only maximum security prison."
The department said operations at the prison were "returning to normal" following the January attack.
"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," the DOC said in a statement. "Every effort was made to provide attorneys with reasonable access to their clients as soon as safety and security were restored."
The DOC said Souza-Baranowski inmates are getting more shower, phone call, email, and recreation time after a lockdown and search, and that attorneys have been permitted to visit their clients. General visits were expected to resume by the end of the week.
They added that there are multiple channels for misconduct by prison staff to be reported, and that each report is thoroughly investigated.
On Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters his office is monitoring the situation.
"There's a process in place for pursuing the investigation," Gov. Baker said. "The department's going to collaborate and cooperate with whatever people want to pursue on that, but I have a lot of faith in the department and in the actions its taken to insure that inmates and correctional officers at Souza are safe."
The correction officers' union has blamed the January brawl on efforts for criminal justice reform. Guy Glodis, spokesman for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, said the assault and the officers injuries were "a direct result from the recently enacted Criminal Justice Reform Act legislation, which was promulgated by inmate rights groups and activists,” while advocates said the bill had nothing to do with the unrest.
Gov. Baker said the state would keep its commitment to the reform legislation.
"With respect to programming, the Commonwealth's dramatically expanded its programming over the course of the several years in conjunction with the implementation of the criminal justice reform law, and we'll continue to do so," he said.
Baker did say his administration has been trying to get additional officers at the facility, which has been another aim of the correction officers' union.
"There are staffing models that we believe are appropriate and need to be maintained," he said.
It is also the same facility where former New England Patriot and accused murderer Aaron Hernandez hanged himself in 2017.