‘Rubber stamp’ justice? In Mass., prison officials almost always deny prisoners’ claims of abuse behind bars

‘Rubber stamp’ justice? In Mass., prison officials almost always deny prisoners’ claims of abuse behind bars

For state prisoners, advocates say, “there’s no one to call.”

The Boston Globe
December 29, 2021
By Melissa Ellin, Jake Neenan, and Allison Pirog

Every year, Massachusetts prisoners file hundreds of grievances alleging all manner of mistreatment behind bars, from excessive force to racism to harassment — all at the hands of prison employees.

And year after year, state records show, prison officials reject almost all of them.

A Globe review of more than 1,500 prisoner grievances filed from 2018 to 2021 at six of the largest state prisons found that investigators fully corroborated the prisoners’ claims only nine times.

Some of the complaints may very well be groundless. But the Correction Department itself has an internal benchmark where it expects to at least partially approve about 20 percent of overall prisoner grievances. During the three years reviewed by the Globe, prisoners’ claims of staff abuse were fully or partially supported no more than 7 percent of the time.

The Massachusetts Department of Correction declined multiple requests for comment, but provided background material suggesting the department takes care in reviewing grievances. Claims are investigated by trained grievance coordinators and prisoners can appeal their decisions to the prison superintendent or even the Correction Department’s central office.

But that’s a far cry from assigning an outside agency to investigate grievances, something a blue ribbon panel on prison reform recommended 17 years ago. The Governor’s Commission on Correction Reform said it was unfair to prisoners that department personnel decided whether their allegations of abuse were valid.

Elizabeth Matos, a staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, called the state’s grievance system a “rubber stamp process” offering little chance of justice for the incarcerated men.

Filing a written grievance is one of the few ways prisoners can raise concerns about their treatment behind bars — where there is virtually no outside oversight. If their allegations are almost reflexively dismissed, serious issues such as sexual abuse, racial discrimination, and excessive use of force by correctional officers may go unacknowledged and unaddressed.

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