The Taking of Cell 15

The Taking of Cell 15

A look at secrecy, assaults, and accountability inside Massachusetts’ maximum security prison

The Boston Globe
August 14, 2021
This story was reported by Mark Arsenault, Matt Rocheleau, and Spotlight editor Patricia Wen. It was written by Arsenault.

The five-member Department of Correction tactical team strode purposefully down the P2 cellblock of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. The officers’ mission was clear: remove one of the two prisoners locked inside Cell 15. And they were ready, carrying tasers, accompanied by fierce patrol dogs, and geared up in black protective armor.

The prisoners had been left in the empty cell in only their underwear.

It was about 2:40 p.m. on Jan. 22, 2020, and no ordinary day at the state’s only maximum-security prison, a sprawling facility in the woods of Central Massachusetts with, at the time, about 740 prisoners — mostly men convicted of serious crimes and those who’ve tallied too many disciplinary violations at other prisons. Tensions are normal here, but this was different: The facility was still in an extended lockdown after a violent assault on correction officers had injured four of them 12 days earlier, on Jan. 10, in the N1 unit, an adjacent cellblock.

The prisoners alleged to have taken part in the attack had been sent to other prisons, and now it was time, correction officials resolved, to reorganize the institution and remind those left behind who was in charge. Cells and prisoners would be searched, forcibly if need be, for weapons and other contraband.

It is called a shakedown, and there is no requirement to play nice.

Most of what happened next, after the operation began, is all but impossible to know, hidden behind the thick cloak of secrecy that routinely blocks scrutiny of prison life here — and almost all efforts at accountability in the state correction department. Were scores of prisoners brutalized during the shakedown, as they say? Were excesses tolerated, even encouraged by Souza authorities? Were official accounts of what happened sanitized or, as seems clear in some cases, baldly falsified?

There are few openings to try to break through to the truth, but there was one — in Cell 15. The Spotlight Team, after months of investigation, was able to compile an account of what happened there, examining available records, obtaining cellblock video and photos, as well as sound files recorded as the cell was entered and its occupants rousted, and finding key players willing to risk being interviewed and quoted by name.

What emerges is a chilling picture, bristling with hard questions about the proper limits of prison administration, about a wave of alleged assaults and abuses, about regulations unenforced, and about the rights of those confined to prison — questions seldom examined in a state where, despite its progressive profile, public access is handcuffed and secrecy rewarded.

Between Jan. 10 and March 1, 2020, men incarcerated at Souza lodged 118 allegations of excessive force by officers, according to Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, a nonprofit organization that aids and advocates for incarcerated people.

In the same time period in 2019, there were four excessive force complaints at Souza.

Same time period this year? Six.

Men reported being beaten, slammed into walls, shocked by tasers, tormented with chemical agents, threatened with dogs, taunted with racist remarks, and placed in stress positions for hours while handcuffed. Prison officials defend the level of force used — sometimes, the Spotlight Team found, implausibly: In the case of the men of Cell 15, “use of force” reports filed by at least four officers who witnessed the events contain obviously false information.

The state DOC says its overwhelming response to the Jan. 10 attack was “swift action to restore order” at an institution that is truly difficult and often dangerous to manage.

Prisoners’ Legal Services, representing clients at Souza, is drafting a federal excessive force lawsuit against the Department of Correction. State regulations forbid the use of force as a punishment. PLS will allege that department leadership “authorized and encouraged” retributory violence against incarcerated men, according to a statement released by Elizabeth Matos, the group’s director. “What happened at Souza last year is one very clear example of how this system is not only failing to rehabilitate those behind the wall but, quite literally, harming them,” the statement said.