Prison Brutality at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center

Prison Brutality at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center
Statement of Prisoners’ Legal Services

For immediate release: August 18, 2021

Prisoners Legal Services (PLS) appreciates the Globe Spotlight team’s reporting of the systemic assaults that occurred at SBCC in January of 2020 — over a year and a half ago. We also deeply appreciate statements made by legislators and CPCS acknowledging the problematic conditions at Souza Baranowski prison (SBCC) and the need for accountability. 

We hope that action by decision-makers will at long last bring to account the perpetrators of state sanctioned violence and those charged with oversight. We must prevent this from happening again and address the commonplace violence and abuse, often racialized, that continues to occur at the prison. Trauma inflicted on the individuals and their families at the hands of the state serves no justifiable purpose and harms us all. 

Immediately following the assaults of January 2020:

  • There were multiple news accounts of the campaign of brutality.
  • PLS, defense attorneys and multiple legislators, including those in leadership, visited with those incarcerated individuals, predominantly people of color, who were targeted in these assaults. 
  • PLS also held a press conference about the incident and provided details that we acquired after conducting dozens and dozens of interviews with clients. 
  • Advocates hand delivered a letter to the Governor’s office asking for an independent investigation and accountability. 
  • We similarly sent a letter during that same time period to U.S. Attorney Lelling. 
  • Advocates asked the Attorney General’s office to intervene. 
  • Defense Attorneys filed a lawsuit in superior court challenging the confiscation of legal documents by the DOC during the crackdown and the refusal to allow for attorney access for weeks while many of the assaults were taking place.
  • In 2020, legislation focused on transparency, data collection and accountability in correctional use of force practices was not advanced. 
  • There was a clear opportunity during negotiations around the policing bill to include correctional practices, but corrections was almost entirely written out of the bill. 
  • A commission established to study the issue was supposed to have started meeting in March of this year with recommendations due by December but has yet to even be constituted. Although such a commission could be helpful, it lacks independent oversight authority and recommendations alone do not provide the immediate solutions and accountability needed to respond to the scale of abuses.

During the 20 months that have gone by since January, PLS and the law firm Hogan Lovells have been carefully and diligently crafting a lawsuit to bring accountability, while brutality has continued regularly behind the wall. PLS has received 253 new brutality intakes since March 1, 2020, and 58 of those have been from SBCC. The assaults at SBCC in January of 2020 are symptomatic of the brutality that is endemic to the prison system. This continues because the DOC is repeatedly allowed to thumb its nose at the Legislature, circumvent the law, and act with impunity.

Brutality incidents are an acute example of the oppressive and counterproductive conditions at SBCC. People on the Northside of the prison are locked in their cells 21.5 hours daily, just a half hour less than the technical definition of restrictive housing, also known as solitary confinement. They have limited property, little to no programming or work opportunities, no access to group worship, and no ability to eat communally. Such units are not evidence-based and serve no rehabilitative purpose. 

We dare to be hopeful that this moment of attention will bring a sense of urgency and responsibility to those who have failed to respond to a desperate situation since January 2020. As former DOC Commissioner Dennehy said in her recent public statement on the issue, “There needs to be a long-term solution. There needs to be some institutionalized, permanent independent oversight and accountability. We need to have an independent ombudsman who does not answer to anyone.” She should know as she spent years working in this system and was pushed out when she tried to reform it.

We call for the following immediate action:

  • Swiftly pass An Act to create uniform standards in the use of force within correctional institutions (S.1541, H. 2480, Sen. Barrett, Reps. Keefe and Miranda)
  • Create an independent, long term, oversight authority for corrections
  • Effectuate the current ombudsman language that was completely ignored by DOC last session and passed again in the budget in July, and ensure it is independent of the DOC
  • End the super maximum security conditions that were created at SBCC in the wake of the January 2020 assaults

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Prisoner’s Legal Services promotes the safe, humane, and lawful treatment of Massachusetts prisoners through civil rights litigation, administrative advocacy, client counseling, and outreach to policy makers and the public.