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Cell-block beatdown
Inmates claim sadistic beatings have been commonplace in Boston’s jails — can civil lawsuits make things right?
BY DAVID S. BERNSTEIN

Boston's not alone

Boston isn't the only New England city dealing with torture issues. The Portland Phoenix's found that torture and abuse were commonplace inside a Supermax unit in Maine. They even found video evidence. Read his article here.

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.

 

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Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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