With two federal lawsuits pending that allege excessive use of force by correction officers, and a Justice Department probe questioning the system’s handling of prisoners with mental illness, a little transparency would be a very good thing at Massachusetts state prisons right now.
And just as police departments here and around the nation are turning to body-worn cameras as a way to prevent abuses and provide a window into police interactions with civilians, so, too, some state correctional facilities are beginning to use the same tool for the same reasons.
It’s time the beleaguered Massachusetts Department of Correction looked to body-worn cameras as a way to restore credibility to a department much in need of a fresh approach.
Of course, if the Baker administration in its waning days in office isn’t interested in the idea, perhaps the next administration will be. And as another budgetary year comes around on Beacon Hill, certainly the Legislature — which let correction officers fall through the cracks of its landmark police reform bill — might want to take another look at the issue.
“It is well past time for the Legislature to take meaningful steps to curb the lack of transparency at DOC,” said Patty DeJuneas, an attorney who filed one of those two federal lawsuits, this one involving two inmates at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center who were injured in the aftermath of a prison melee in which they were not involved.
“The secrecy is compounded by the alarming number of staff assaults on prisoners which occur — by design — outside the view of the existing stationary surveillance camera system,” DeJuneas told the Globe editorial board. “And they occur in violation of existing DOC policy, which requires that all forcible moves of prisoners be recorded on video.”
It’s the dirty little secret of prisons generally, certainly not just those here in Massachusetts, that both prisoners and correction officers are well aware of the blind spots in existing surveillance cameras.
Governor Charlie Baker, in an interview last summer, and in the wake of a Globe Spotlight Team investigation of abuses alleged at Souza-Baranowski, acknowledged, “The standard rule of thumb at this point is — if they do any kind of sweep like that in the future, they need to do that with cameras on.
“They should be filming that stuff,” Baker said during the interview, on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”
And according to a copy of the DOC policy shown to the Globe, any cell extractions and forced cell entries are indeed supposed to be videotaped, as Baker indicated. But the ones written about in Spotlight’s “Taking of Cell 15,″ and those that are now the subject of the second lawsuit originating from that Jan. 10, 2020, prison shakedown, were not.
Body-worn cameras would translate what purports to be DOC policy into reality. They would also have shed more light on the origins of that melee, in which four correction officers were also injured.
Ohio prison officials announced last week the state would deploy more than 5,000 body-worn cameras for correction officers in all of its 28 prisons. The move follows a recent $17.5 million settlement reached in November in a lawsuit brought by an inmate paralyzed during a takedown by prison guards. It also follows by a year an incident in which a 55-year-old Ohio prisoner collapsed and died after guards pushed him to the ground during a scuffle outside his cell. A coroner ruled the death a homicide, and seven prison guards were fired, but no criminal charges were ever brought. Surveillance video managed to capture only part of the incident.
Guards at a state prison in San Diego were ordered to wear body cameras by a judge after allegations of abuse against prisoners with disabilities surfaced. Last March, a federal judge extended that order to five more prisons, noting in her ruling, “Some of the incidents involve the use of force against mentally or physically disabled inmates even though the disabled inmates appear to have posed no imminent threat to the safety of staff or other inmates.”
The Justice Department investigation of Massachusetts’ treatment of mentally ill inmates released in November 2020 found the system here so inadequate in dealing with that population that it risked violating constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment. Those charges, still unresolved, also raised issues about the conduct of correction officers called on to deal with suicidal prisoners.
“I see no principled reason to keep body cameras out of Massachusetts prisons,” DeJuneas said, “especially where this same evidence will protect DOC and its officers from frivolous claims of excessive force.”
Apparently, officials in New York agree. An uptick in gang-related stabbings at Rikers Island spurred the use of body cameras by some — but not all — guards.
Wisconsin, Georgia, Virginia, and Florida are all testing or piloting body cameras in their prisons.
It shouldn’t take a court order, as it did in California, or a hefty court settlement and a death, as it did in Ohio, to make a prison system see the light. It should just take some common sense to make use of a tool with enormous potential to make prisons a bit safer for all of those within the walls — inmates and officers alike.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.