New bill proposes civilian oversight for Massachusetts prisons
Senator James Eldridge calls for independent oversight to help reform the agency, currently facing two federal lawsuits alleging misconduct
The Boston Globe
January 11, 2022
By Mark Arsenault
Amid two federal lawsuits alleging excessive force by Massachusetts prison officials, a leading critic of the Department of Correction has filed a bill to establish independent civilian oversight of the state’s prisons and jails, bringing outside accountability to some of the least transparent parts of government.
A bill filed by state Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, seeks to establish a new five-member commission with the authority to hear and investigate grievances lodged by incarcerated people and the power to compel prison and jail authorities to give public testimony and correct problems in their institutions.
“I think that there are a growing number of legislators who think that unless there’s an independent oversight commission, you’re not going to see change in the DOC,” Eldridge said.
The legislation comes in the wake of two civil lawsuits filed against the Department of Correction over the past year, each alleging that prison officials orchestrated a wave of retributory violence in early 2020 against men incarcerated at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster.
Eldridge said DOC oversight bills have been filed in the past, most recently the early 2000s, but they have not passed. Nationally, there has been gathering momentum over the past decade for prison oversight bodies, according to Michele Deitch, cofounder and director of the soon-to-be-launched Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.
The proposed oversight commission, according to Eldridge’s legislation, would include two retired justices appointed by the governor; one retired corrections officer appointed by the governor; one person who was previously incarcerated, appointed by the governor; and the executive director of the nonprofit advocate Prisoners’ Legal Service or that person’s designee.
The panel would “act as the primary civil enforcement agency” for grievances brought against the Department of Correction, taking the responsibility to investigate grievances away from the DOC, Eldridge said in an interview.
Elizabeth Matos, director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said in a statement, “it is simply impossible to have any real sense of accountability if laws, mandates and internal policies are routinely ignored by the DOC and other correctional administrators. Independent oversight is necessary because the corrections system has repeatedly proven itself to be opaque, harmful and untrustworthy.”