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Exposing, and preventing, abuse at South Bay

Andrea Cabral was brought in to clean up the mess left by Richard J. Rouse ó who, by the end of his seven-year run as Suffolk County sheriff, in 2002, had been pretty well exposed as an incompetent, disengaged, patronage-laden leader under whom all hell had broken loose. Money was wasted in fistfuls (one year, $800,000 went to guards in $1000 bonuses for taking mandatory drug tests). Patronage hires were rampant. At the Norfolk Street jail, where temporary detainees are held, eight guards were indicted on federal charges of beating prisoners and falsifying reports to cover up the incidents. (Four ultimately pleaded guilty, two were convicted, and two were acquitted.) In the female prisonersí wing of the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay, routine illegal strip searches and other abuses (one of which resulted in an impregnated prisoner) led to a $10 million settlement.

Complaints from the largest group under Rouseís control, the men housed at South Bay, have remained unresolved, but a step was taken in that direction in federal court last week when Cabralís lawyers agreed to a series of changes in the prisonís policies, training, surveillance, and investigations.

The agreement would, if accepted by Judge Rya Zobel, settle a class-action suit brought in 2000 by 55 former inmates against the department, Rouse, and dozens of individual guards for abuses allegedly committed between 1997 and 1999. The suitís allegations include savage beatings delivered after inmates were restrained and handcuffed; withholding of medication and treatment for injuries; destruction of legal documents; and sadistic physical and psychological abuse. A number of the plaintiffs say they have sustained permanent injuries. Inmate complaints that were trivial, unsubstantiated by documentation or witnesses, or the result of reasonable use of force were weeded out, says plantiffsí attorney Theodore Goguen, of South Natick law firm Goguen McLaughlin Richards & Mahaney. "It had to be outrageous to the public conscience for us to take it," he says. (The department would not comment on the pending settlement.)

According to court documents, Cabralís department has agreed to, among other things, change its use-of-force policy and train correction officers in its application; implement a new inmate-grievance policy and a computerized complaint-tracking system; and install video cameras throughout the prison. Some of these changes have already been made. For example, video cameras have been installed in the elevators ó something Rouse refused to do ó where guards allegedly administered their most brutal beatings under cover.

The agreement also calls for an external review of the reforms a year from now ó a component unfortunately missing from similar recommendations made by a 2002 commission, as its commissioner, former US Attorney Donald K. Stern, concedes.

However, the settlement of the class-action suit will not close this ugly chapter in Bostonís law-enforcement history; in fact, it clears the way for the 55 individual claims to proceed in Zobelís court, something that should begin this summer. Thatís when juries will decide on each claimís merits, as well as what damages each inmate should be paid and by whom. Itís likely that the department ó and thus the taxpayer ó will end up with most of the bill, which could easily run to millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, the individual guards who allegedly brutalized the South Bay inmates continue to go largely unpunished; most continue to work at South Bay. The union representing those correction officers denies that any abuses took place. A spokesperson would not comment on last weekís agreement ó which was reached without consulting the union ó but said that "we would be supportive of anything that we believe would make a safer environment for the staff and the inmates." If thatís the case, Goguen has this advice: "If his hands are tied and his feet are shackled, you donít keep clubbing him in the head with a stick."

Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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