Stories about prison guards beating up inmates aren’t exactly the rage these days — people are more likely to get outraged over lax treatment of prisoners, like the flap about the Massachusetts Department of Correction allowing convicted murderers to hold a Christmas party.
But, no matter what one thinks incarceration should look like, it should not include sadistic beatings of subdued and shackled inmates, or the deliberate withholding of needed medication or medical treatment. And that’s what many prisoners say occurred, repeatedly, within the walls of the South Bay House of Correction in the late 1990s.
That is also the finding of a state-commission report from 2002, which found "reported incidents of physical abuse and sexual misconduct, while not widespread, were egregious" at the "deeply troubled institution." And now, no fewer than 55 former inmates are suing the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, which runs South Bay, for these types of abuses.
South Bay, a sleek, modern, seven-building complex built in 1991 to replace the notoriously antiquated Deer Island facility, houses inmates serving sentences of up to two and a half years. Criminals doing harder time go to state prisons, like MCI-Shirley. Many of the men at the House of Correction are serving time for drug possession, theft, or assault. Many are regular guys who screwed up. They just want to do their time and get back home. They are less Boston Strangler and more Mark Wahlberg — who has credited his 45 days at Deer Island for scaring him straight.
For the past few years, Sheriff Andrea Cabral has been stuck dealing with the problems left by her predecessor, Richard Rouse, who fled from office in 2002 amid allegations of gross mismanagement, patronage, and other sins — including multiple allegations of prisoner abuse at South Bay and the smaller Nashua Street Jail, used for temporary detainment.
Many of them have proven costly. Female inmates won a $10 million award to compensate them for illegal strip-searches. Another female inmate who was coerced into having sex with South Bay guards — and became pregnant by one of them — settled for $657,000. A federal jury awarded half a million dollars to South Bay guard Bruce Baron for the psychological abuse he endured from his fellow corrections officers after he reported one of them for misbehavior.
There were even criminal prosecutions. Federal authorities brought charges against corrections officers at the Nashua Street Jail. Four department employees ultimately pleaded guilty to their roles in the vicious beating of Leonard Gibson, an 18-year-old with Tourette’s syndrome, in October 1999 — guards said they would "beat the Tourette’s out of him," because his outbursts were disturbing their attempt to watch baseball on television.
All of these incidents occurred between 1997 and 1999. The allegations of guards abusing male inmates at South Bay, which happened during the same three-year period as all these other misdeeds, has had a longer, tougher, and less noticed struggle for attention, and for justice. A major step came this past spring, when Cabral’s office signed a 10-page settlement agreement in a class-action suit brought by 55 former South Bay inmates. In it, the department made no concession about any individual action, but it agreed to a host of operation, policy, procedure, and practice changes at South Bay — many of which it was, by then, already implementing, such as placing video surveillance cameras in the elevators, where the worst beatings allegedly took place. It also paid $175,000 to reimburse the inmates’ attorneys, and agreed to an external review next spring to measure its progress.
That’s a huge step, but it leaves a lot left unanswered. Now, with the class-action suit settled, those 55 former inmates are bringing their individual complaints to court. Their allegations name 86 different correction officers, sergeants, lieutenants, and captains, out of a total of around 500 employed at South Bay at the time, plus numerous "John Does" who inmates could not identify — because they were allegedly hooded, or forced into a position from which they could not see their attackers. Most of those officers still work for the sheriff. Few have been disciplined. Several have been promoted.
CODE OF SILENCE
The tales of abuse are frightening. There is Darryl Buchanan, beaten in an elevator until several teeth were dislodged; Carlton Buford, beaten and kicked with steel-toed boots; James Conrad, denied his daily medication for a week and then beaten so severely he ended up in the hospital for a month; Kenneth Edge, beaten until he couldn’t stand and "there was blood everywhere," according to other inmates; Edward Evans, with permanent hearing loss as a result of his beatings; Robert Gude, an epileptic, denied his medication and then beaten until he went into a seizure; Robert Hughes, beaten until he passed out, bleeding from his ear; Michael McGrath, beaten until he lost consciousness; Daniel Saliba, beaten and then thrown down a metal-and-cement stairwell while shackled; and Stephen St. James, kicked so hard he defecated blood for days.
Formal complaints — when inmates dared make them — fell on deaf ears within Rouse’s sheriff’s department. Disciplining of guards was rare. The district attorney’s office made no effort to bring criminal charges. Instead, inmates were more likely to suffer more abuse in retaliation for lodging the complaint.
A state commission, led by former US Attorney Donald K. Stern, found that inmate grievances were trapped in a system with a "lack of controls to prohibit retaliation," "no policy against harassment or retaliation against inmates in response to a grievance," "a code of silence" among staff, and a grievance procedure that included no interview of the inmate, no hearing, and no notification to the inmate of a rejected complaint, from which he might file an appeal.
While inmates at South Bay frequently used the official inmate grievance process — 1043 times in 2001, for instance — they almost never did so for serious allegations like use of force, leading the commission to speculate that there "could be reluctance or fear about filing grievances on certain topics."
"Complaining against the treatment of a particular guard seemed like it carried a certain risk," says Owen Todd, a member of the Stern Commission that produced the report. "The guards in the various unions had the esprit de corps of one for all and all for one."
A year earlier, an audit by the American Correctional Association (ACA) — often accused of going easy on prison administrators — similarly blasted the grievance-investigation unit at the Nashua Street Jail. The ACA found no procedure to track complaints, poorly trained investigators, and other systemic problems — as well as a widespread belief among supervisors that administrators would reverse any discipline they handed out to guards.
Guards themselves kept their knowledge of abusive coworkers to themselves, locked behind a code of silence and threats of retaliation. "There’s no question that that atmosphere existed at that time," says Francis DiMento Jr., an attorney who helped former South Bay guard Bruce Baron win his lawsuit against the county. Baron reported a supervisor for the infraction of playing cards with an inmate; he then endured a year and a half of harassment from guards for being a rat.
Since quitting the department, Baron has also talked publicly about witnessing guards beating inmates. One of the guards was nicknamed "Corporal Punishment," DiMento says. "There are some sadistic guys in there."
THE MOST EGREGIOUS
It’s tempting to be dismissive of these sorts of lawsuits — inmates do, indeed, file many frivolous and baseless suits. But, as Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services (MCLS), points out, that is far more common at state facilities, where prisoners serve lengthy sentences and have little else to do. South Bay inmates are serving, at most, two and a half years, and often much less. They will be long gone by the time any lawsuit reaches trial; they almost always prefer to just stick it out for the months until their release.
And these cases weren’t even initiated by the inmates. It all started in September 1999, when inmate Anthony Bova appeared for a scheduled court appearance covered with terrible bruises. The judge refused to send Bova back to South Bay. He ordered photographs taken of the injuries, and assigned attorney Theodore Goguen to represent Bova. "His face was mashed up, his chest was slashed," Goguen says of Bova. "I guess when the guards beat him up they forgot he had a court date."
According to Bova, guards had placed him on his knees, hands cuffed behind his back, and beaten him. Goguen asked Bova whether this was an isolated incident; Bova named three other inmates he knew had been beaten. Goguen and his partner interviewed them, and that led to more, and more, and more.
They accepted only the most egregious cases, and those with supporting witnesses or documentation, Goguen says. "If it was just a few cuts on the face, we said no," Goguen says. The attorneys also rejected incidents that were arguably legitimate uses of force to restrain a prisoner.
Two months after meeting Bova, Goguen filed a suit with 28 plaintiffs. Three months later, he added 27 more names.
Most of the guards are named in just one or two incidents, but some names pop up over and over again.
Certain types of abuse also recur. Most striking are the "elevator rides," in which guards, often in groups, allegedly dragged inmates into an elevator, where no surveillance cameras were installed at the time, to administer beatings. Another repeating theme: withholding an inmate’s medication until he acted out, and using that as provocation to assault him.
Several of the alleged incidents came in direct response to inmates’ attempts to complain about guards’ misbehavior — the kind of retaliation that ensured that few inmates would file grievances. One inmate claims he was beaten in his cell after showing other prisoners how to properly fill out grievance forms.
A BAD OMEN
Goguen finally got the first of the 55 cases to court two weeks ago, but was unable to persuade a jury to find guard William Curtis guilty of violating inmate William Fryar’s civil rights.
On July 14, 1998, Curtis called an emergency-response team to Fryar’s cell. Fryar’s face was a bloody and bruised mess; one tooth was dislodged, another tooth was broken apart, and his lip was split. According to Fryar — who has muscular dystrophy and walks with a cane — Curtis had grabbed him by the hair and pounded his face into a wall several times.
According to Curtis, Fryar hurt himself falling.
These suits pose tremendous hurdles. The "code of silence" among correction officers has kept guards from talking about what they have witnessed. The witnesses, then, are the convicted criminals themselves. Not only are they viewed as untrustworthy, but they are often poor speakers, due to lack of education, mental illness, or learning disability. "Winning these cases is an almost insurmountable task," says Walker of MCLS, which is not involved in these cases but often represents prisoners in similar suits. "The legal deck is stacked."
Fryar had another obstacle: he was not allowed to present the surrounding scandal of the sheriff’s department under Sheriff Richard Rouse in the late 1990s. The remaining trials will bring in the broader context of the department, Goguen says.
There is plenty to use. Rouse, previously a state representative and county clerk, was appointed by William Weld to replace Robert Rufo as Suffolk County sheriff in 1996. He hired old friends with little or no law-enforcement experience for top posts, including John Haack as superintendent of South Bay. Rouse also hired his boyhood buddy Brian Byrnes as his second-in-command, despite his total lack of relevant experience. Byrnes staunchly resisted calls to upgrade South Bay’s horribly inadequate video monitoring systems — which did not actually record, and which included no cameras in the elevators.
Rouse moved his own office out of South Bay and into the county courthouse downtown, and was seldom seen at the prisoner facilities. Under the lax oversight of Rouse and his top staff, "conditions were ripe for officers so inclined to abuse their authority," the 2002 Stern Commission report concluded.
And they did, as evidenced by the revelations of coerced sex, illegal strip-searches, inmate abuse at the Nashua Street Jail, and harassment of Bruce Baron.
In most of those cases, the public learned the truth — and the victims received some compensation — only because of civil suits, like the ones being brought by the South Bay inmates.
Sheriff Cabral’s office has acknowledged, in general terms, problems of the past, and has done much to change its policies and procedures. But Cabral is doing everything she can to stand in the way of the civil suits. (Cabral would not speak to the Phoenix for this story.) Department attorneys have filed motions to get the suits dismissed, claiming that the inmates can’t sue until they exhaust the department’s own grievance process. Goguen counters that those who tried to use that process were punished, and that the grievance process was so poorly managed that it was, effectively, no process at all.
Indeed, this very Catch-22 was noted by the Stern Commission. "The inmate never formally exhausts administrative procedures," its report said, adding that this could, through no fault of the inmate’s, preclude the possibility of a civil lawsuit.
And if juries do start awarding cash settlements in those trials, the Commonwealth will most likely step in and settle the remaining cases. Those involved in the litigation believe that the state is using the first handful of trials to test the mood of the juries. If the juries side with the inmates, expect the state to negotiate a group payment — without acknowledging any wrongdoing, or allowing the public to find out what really happened.
HAVE THINGS CHANGED?
Former inmates tell a story, supposedly witnessed by an inmate on kitchen duty, of Andrea Cabral’s first day on the job, after Governor Jane Swift picked her to clean up the department. At the start of each eight-hour shift that day, they say, Cabral addressed all of the guards starting work. She told them that from now on, she wanted everything reported — no covering for other guards, no lies, no looking the other way.
True or apocryphal, the story spread quickly throughout the South Bay inmate population. The department also rewrote its use-of-force policies and improved the grievance process. According to inmates and other observers, the most blatant abuses have stopped.
But if there is no punishment for the misdeeds, what’s to stop them from happening again? The Suffolk DA’s office has had no interest in prosecuting guards, although in many cases they were simply unable — no state law forbade corrections officers from having sex with inmates, for instance.
After the scandals hit the press, the sheriff’s department started handing down punishments, but has had trouble making them stick against union opposition. Cabral was quoted in 2003 complaining that, "You fire them, they sue you, and they say, ‘You didn’t tell me I couldn’t trade peroxide for sex.’ "
Of 23 guards fired or disciplined for serious misconduct between 1999 and 2002, seven had their punishments reversed in arbitration — reversed by the state’s union-stacked Civil Service Commission. In fact, one of the four commissioners is Daniel J. O’Neil, former president of the statewide corrections-officers union.
And Cabral has sent mixed signals in her actions regarding Sheila Porter, the former South Bay nurse now suing the department. Porter claims that Cabral had her fired for cooperating with the FBI in its investigation of alleged inmate abuse in 2003. Cabral denies the claim, but has hardly sounded like she welcomed the FBI inquiry.
She has also hardly acted like someone eager for the truth to come out in the 55 cases of alleged inmate abuse. Certainly she wouldn’t be thrilled at facing another multimillion-dollar settlement, for actions that preceded her. But if she’s serious about ending the abuses, the truth has to come first.
David S. Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A WARNING TO POTENTIAL VIEWERS
The extremely explicit and graphic scenes on this tape are real. They are not for the faint of heart. They include nudity and violence. Anyone who views them should be prepared to be disturbed and outraged. We have blurred the faces of the inmate and the guards in order to protect their privacy.
The three video clips represent one minute and thirty seconds of a more-than hourlong video that chronicled the 2000 "extraction" of a prisoner from his cell inside Maine’s Supermax and his placement in the prison’s restraint chair. As Lance Tapley explains in the story (part one, part two), the "prison tapes each extraction in order to prove, some people would say ironically, that the prisoner is not being mistreated."
The full video starts with the guards receiving instructions from a superior on the inmate’s situation, his extraction from his cell, and his march toward the hallway outside the restraint room, where he is forced to the ground and sprayed in the face with what looks like pepper spray. The prisoner’s clothes are then cut off until he is nude. He is picked up off the floor and thrown into a chair, where a guard again sprays him repeatedly while three other guards strap him in. The bulk of the video shows the naked prisoner in the chair, trying to get free, and yelling to the guards: "I am sitting in piss." Through the reflection of the window-enclosed room, guards can be seen periodically looking in on the suspect.
It is important to bear in mind that the actions captured in these clips are not outlawed. They are sanctioned by the state, and the guards are shown are working within a well-established legal framework. By showing these tapes we aim to bring to public attention to the internal workings of Maine Supermax and similar correctional facilities across the nation.