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 3
Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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