When prison staff use excessive physical force against an incarcerated person and injures him or her. PLS has a rapid response protocol with reports of brutality.

PLS accepts calls reporting new staff on prisoner assaults from 9-11 and 1-4 Monday-Friday.  Your call will be routed to our brutality paralegal who is experienced in handling these matters. Unfortunately, PLS is generally unable to investigate cases of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults. Since we potentially represent all individuals confined in Massachusetts prisons and jails, investigating prisoner-on-prisoner assaults presents conflicts of interest for us. We can offer information regarding referrals and other resources, however, particularly when there is a failure of the DOC to protect the individual in those cases. 

PLS brutality project

We have compiled some information about restrictive housing for your reference. This should serve as a starting point for your research. The following is not intended to be viewed as legal advice.

Prison Brutality Project

The Prison Brutality Project (PBP) of Prisoners’ Legal Services is an effort to address the problem of staff-on-prisoner violence.  We attempt to reduce the level of staff brutality against prisoners through documenting and investigating reported instances of assault, litigating cases of staff assault, increasing the availability of private attorneys available to litigate cases of staff assault, and through immediate advocacy related to medical needs resulting from the assault, racial discrimination or animus during the assault and reporting to DOC problem officers who repeatedly show up in reports of excessive force.

We have compiled some information about staff assaults for your reference. This should serve as a starting point for your research. The following is not intended to be viewed as legal advice.

How you can help when you know of a staff assault on someone in prison

  1. Make sure the incarcerated person knows they need to “exhaust administrative remedies.”  This means they need to follow the grievance procedure at their prison or jail to complain in writing about having been assaulted. A sample DOC Grievance Form can be found here. The deadlines for doing this are very short, so it needs to happen right away.  Both federal and state laws require that a prisoner exhaust administrative remedies before bringing a lawsuit about things that happen in prison.  It is important for a prisoner to make sure they are following the grievance procedures correctly in order to exhaust administrative remedies. The DOC grievance regulations can be found here.  Each county jail or house of correction has its own grievance procedure that a person assaulted in that facility must follow.  Be sure to know and follow the correct procedure because a failure to do so may result in a court rejecting any lawsuit about an assault that was not properly “exhausted” or grieved.  
  2. Contact PLS to report the assault if the incarcerated person cannot do so.
  3. Pass on information about the assault or injuries to PLS during our investigation.  At the same time, be aware that PLS cannot share information about the incarcerated person with you unless we have the person’s specific permission to do so and we also can’t take action on their behalf without their permission.
  4. You can submit a letter to the prison or jail’s superintendent putting them on notice that you request preservation of all of the evidence related to the assault.  See below for more information on this.  This request should be sent as soon as possible after the assault because many prisons and jails recycle their. See a sample DOC “request to preserve” letter here. See a sample County “request to preserve” letter here.
  5. If the incarcerated person received a disciplinary ticket in response to the assault on them, a very common occurrence, you can inform them of the resources for assistance in the disciplinary process, described in our disciplinary hearing page.

You can help your loved one in prison by trying to find a private attorney who can litigate the case for them or by looking up information on the court’s online docket if they have filed the case pro se.

How to report an assault by staff

A person in prison can call PLS to report a staff assault on themselves or another prisoner Monday – Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and inform the receptionist that they are calling to report a staff assault.  From inside any DOC prison, a caller should dial 9004.  That number is a speed dial and does not need to get added to a prisoner’s PIN list.  From inside a county jail or house of correction, a person should call 617-482-4124 collect.

Family or friends on the outside can call PLS Monday – Friday at 617-482-4124 to make the report.  Though we are happy to take information in this way, please be aware that PLS staff are unable to share any information about the incarcerated person without first getting their permission- even with family or loved ones.  

You or an incarcerated person can also write to PLS to report staff assaults.    

If leaving a voice message or writing a letter to make the report, please leave as much of the following information as you know: Your name, the first and last name of the prisoner who was assaulted (or if you don’t know that, please leave as much identifying information as you do know, including nicknames, cell, and unit or physical description), the prison and location where the incident occurred, the date of the incident, and a description of the injuries suffered.  The more information you provide, the better.

How will PLS respond?

Initial Contact

Assaults at MCI Cedar Junction, MCI Framingham, and Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center are handled through our Rapid Response to Brutality Project (RRBP)

When PLS receives a report about a prisoner at these 3 prisons who, within the last 14 days, sustained a physical injury (e.g., bruises, cuts, stitches, or broken bones) as the result of being assaulted by correctional staff, we respond with our Rapid Response to Brutality Project (RRBP).  RRBP staff will conduct a legal visit with the injured prisoner, usually within 72 hours of PLS learning of the assault.  We will bring a camera to photograph any injuries the prisoner may have suffered and releases of information so that we can obtain the necessary information.  

If appropriate, and with permission from the assaulted person, we will also conduct follow-up advocacy with medical and administrative staff, request that evidence be preserved, and obtain documentation related to the assault. 

Assaults at all other MA prisons, jails, and houses of correction

When PLS receives a report about a prisoner who has been assaulted by staff at any jails or prisons other than the 3 RRBP prisons, we take all the information we can over the phone, then send out a Guard Assault Questionnaire that asks all the information we need to know to determine how to proceed.  Based on that information, PLS determines whether we can offer further assistance including advocacy with medical and administrative staff, request that evidence be preserved, and obtain documentation related to the assault.


Based on the information received from our initial contact with the incarcerated person, PLS will assess whether we are able to offer advocacy about or investigation of the assault.  

With the releases we obtain, we request medical records related to the assault and documentation from the prison or jail about the use of force- including any video.  It often takes a number of months before we receive any information from the prison or jail about the assault, so please be patient!

During this investigation period, we may also speak with witnesses to the assault itself to gather additional information.

Considering for Litigation

Once we have received all of the information about the assault, PLS brutality staff review the information and meet to determine whether we will be able to offer to represent the prisoner in litigation about the assault or connect them with a private pro bono attorney who will represent them.  Unfortunately, PLS is only able to offer these litigation services to a very small number of the prisoners who contact us seeking assistance after having been assaulted by staff.  

There are a number of factors that go into decisions about whether PLS can offer to represent someone or can find a private attorney to do so.  Some of the considerations are whether the person has exhausted their administrative remedies by following the grievance procedure; whether we have evidence that can prove what happened to the person; the extent of the person’s injuries; and whether the assailant is a known problem officer, among others. 

PLS works to create relationships with private attorneys so that in cases where PLS does not have the resources available to take on representation but we think a private attorney might, we have a panel of attorneys to who we can refer the case.  PLS will provide any documents we obtained to a private attorney representing a prisoner on an assault case, with the client’s permission.  If you are an attorney who is interested in being on PLS’ referral panel for brutality cases, please reach out to discuss it.
PLS also has pro se information available to prisoners who wish to pursue their cases while representing themselves.  Any prisoner can obtain that information by calling or writing to PLS as described above and requesting it. 

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why does pls do brutality work?

When we have surveyed incarcerated clients about what work they think is most important for PLS to do, addressing staff brutality against prisoners has historically been rated very high as an important area of work.  As a result, PLS has worked to create processes that we hope will decrease staff brutality and increasing accountability for it when it happens.  Our Board of Directors also determined that brutality would be one of our main priorities.  

In looking at the reports to PLS of staff brutality against prisoners, it is apparent that incarcerated people who identify as Black or Latinx report being assaulted at a greater rate than their percentage of the prisoner population would predict.  We are working with PLS’ Racial Equity in Corrections Initiative to address the involvement of racial bias in staff assaults through advocacy and litigation. 

PLS began the RRBP at MCI-Cedar Junction in November 2001, to respond to what was then the prison with the largest number of staff assaults reported.  The project expanded to MCI-Framingham in July 2002 and to SBCC in November 2004. SBCC is currently the prison with the largest number of assaults on prisoners by staff reported to PLS.  

At the close of each intake involving staff assault on a prisoner, PLS sends the prisoner a survey asking questions about their level of satisfaction with the services and their ideas for improving the project. The whole idea for this project came from prisoners, and that input is essential to ensure that we focus the project to best meet our clients’ needs.

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General Information about staff brutality

You can find the regulations that govern the use of force within the Massachusetts DOC here.  

deadlines and statutes of limitation

The incarcerated person is responsible for meeting all applicable deadlines for their case unless and until this office commits in writing to accept their case for representation. Those deadlines are:

  1. File a grievance within the deadline (usually 10 working days of the incident being grieved).  File an appeal of the denied grievance within the deadline (usually 10 working days of receiving a response to the grievance).  
  2. You have two years from the date of the complained-of incident to present any negligence claims to the appropriate state or county officials by demand letter pursuant to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, Massachusetts General Laws chapter 258.  You must wait six months after presenting your claim pursuant to G.L. c. 258, § 4 before filing in state court.  You cannot file a court action for negligence unless you have done this.
  3. You have three years from the complained-of incident to file a civil action in court, including a claim of violation of your civil rights or a G.L. c. 258 negligence claim.
  4. If you are challenging an administrative proceeding, such as a disciplinary, parole, or classification hearing, you have sixty days from the administrative decision to file a civil action pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 249, § 4 (action in the nature of certiorari). 

Medical Treatment

If you require medical attention for the injuries as a result of a staff assault, please contact us during our intake hours:

Mondays (on Tuesday if Monday is a holiday)
9:00am – 11:00am
1:00pm – 4:00pm

For those who are not incarcerated: 617-482-2773
DOC Speed Dial: 9004
County Call Collect: (617) 482-4124

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DOC Use of Force Guidelines

The following are a few areas of the DOC Use of Force Guidelines that PLS has highlighted. Please reference the DOC’s website for the most up-to-date information.

Access to regulations

Copies of 103 CMR 505.00 shall be posted and maintained in prominent places accessible to all employees and incarcerated persons. A copy shall be given to each employee at the time of initial orientation. A copy shall be kept on file in the institution’s central policy file, inmate law library, and in the Central Office policy file.

Prohibitions on the Use of Force

  • An employee shall not use or permit the use of excessive force. It is the responsibility of an employee who witnesses an excessive use of force to report any such force to a supervisor
  • An employee shall not use or permit the use of force as punishment or discipline

Emergency entry of cell procedure 

The following procedures are to be utilized for an emergency entrance of a cell within a special management unit, or any other unit as deemed appropriate by a superintendent, when time is of the essence, due to a medical or another emergency. These emergencies consist of an inmate who appears to be in distress within a cell and/or when an inmate is physically harming himself/herself. Violation of the following procedure may be grounds for filing a grievance. 

  1. An Emergency Response shall be initiated
  2. Evaluate the cell and the condition of the inmate
  3. If the window of the cell door is covered, make an effort to see in the cell, using any technology available
  4. In order to determine whether it is safe to enter the cell, staff on site shall report to supervisory staff their observations of all available information, including but not limited to the presence of a visible weapon. The shift commander shall make the final decision to conduct an emergency entry into the cell.
  5. When the decision to enter a cell has been made by the shift commander, there shall be at least three staff members present when the door opens. One of these staff members shall be of supervising rank, if possible
  6. Each institution shall place intervention carts throughout the facility. The superintendent or designee shall determine the location of the intervention carts, taking into consideration where uses of force are most likely to occur. During an emergency entrance of cell procedure, if staff members are unable to suit up in extraction equipment, they may utilize any equipment contained in the intervention cart.

Requirements Governing the use of chemical agents

  • Only those chemical agents approved in writing by the Commissioner are authorized for use
  • Chemical agents shall not be used in state institutions without prior authorization of the superintendent, or when not possible, a designee. In emergency situations, the shift commander can also issue the approval. All authorizations must be documented in writing after the incident as soon as possible, no later than the end of the employee’s shift (unless otherwise authorized).
  • When time and circumstance permits, the Medical Director or designee must review the individual’s medical files to determine if the use of said agent could present medical risks. After the review, the Medical Director must complete and sign the “Use of Chemical Agents” form
  • Chemical agents must never be used as punishment
  • Chemical agents can only be used by employees trained and certified in their proper use, and only after a clear verbal warning has been issued (with exceptions made for emergency situations)
  • The use of chemical agents is considered a use of force and is subject to the same reporting requirements. (insert link here)

Requirements Governing the Use of Instruments of Restraint

  • Gags are not authorized as instruments of restraint
  • Instruments of restraints should never be used as punishment
  • The following uses of instruments of restraints is not considered to be a use of force:
    • During the transportation of incarcerated individuals
    • Routine moves of people from one point to another within the correctional facility
    • Application of restraints (including four point restraints) on a person who voluntarily complies with being restrained
  • The shift commander can authorize the use of restraint for up to two hours, but must contact the superintendent (or a designee) as soon as possible to gain documented approval for continued use of restraints beyond 2 hours
  • All restrained perons need to be examined by a member of the Institution’s medical staff at regular and frequent intervals — intervals should not be greater than two hours (except in unusual circumstances)
  • Those under restraint should always be under constant visual observation by staff
  • Correctional officers should always adopt the least amount of physical restraint necessary for the situation
  • Handcuffs or waist chains should never be connected together with leg restraints
  • The use of restraints (in cases other than the exceptions listed above) is considered a use of force and is subject to the same reporting requirements (insert link here) 

Requirements Governing the Use of Firearms

  • A correctional officer qualified to use a firearm can only use it as a last resort and only in the following situations:
    • To prevent an act that is likely to create an  immediate risk of death or serious bodily injury to another person
    • To prevent the escape of an individual when the use of force does not pose a risk of harm to innocent persons
    • To arrest an escaped individual on a charge of escape, but only if:
      • The CO holds a valid special state police commission
      • The CO believes that the use of firearms creates no substantial risk of injury to innocent persons
      • The CO believes that there is substantial risk that the escaped individual will cause death or serious bodily injury if the apprehension is delayed
    • Anyone who is injured as a result of the discharge of a firearm will receive immediate medical care. Such care will be documented
    • Except in emergency situations, firearms are not allowed in minimum and pre-release institutions. In other words, firearms should not be used to prevent escapes from minimum or pre-release institutions or to prevent escapes of individuals known to be a civil commitment to the Bridgewater State Hospital, the Treatment Center at the Bridgewater Complex, the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center, or detainees committed to MCI-Framingham under pre-trial or civil commitment status. 

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Pending Legislation

These are some of the bills that are currently being proposed in Massachusetts. We provide a brief description of some of the key changes the bills proposed. If you want to get involved in helping ensure the passage of these important reforms, please reach out to your representative and let them know you support the following changes to the prison system.

Use of force: S. 1541, Senator Barrett & H. 2480, Representative Keefe, Representative Miranda

Read the bill
Fact Sheet

These bills create uniform minimum standards for state prisons, county jails, and houses of correction in order to minimize unnecessary and excessive use of force against incarcerated persons, increase transparency in the use of force, and decrease the harm that results to both incarcerated persons and custodial staff when incidents escalate into uses of force.

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If you have additional questions or concerns that you would like assistance with, please call us during our intake hours on Monday (or Tuesday if Monday is a holiday):

1:00pm – 4:00pm

or write us a letter to:

50 Federal Street
4th Floor
Boston, MA 02110


50 Federal St., 4th Floor, Boston MA 02110