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Cell-block beatdown, continued

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."


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.

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Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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