The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


A back-page prison death

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist, 9/7/2003

The Commonwealth knows who killed John Geoghan in his prison cell. Shouldn't it invest some time and energy to find out why Kelly Jo Griffin died in hers?

While we debate the makeup of the panel investigating the circumstances surrounding the August death of Geoghan, the infamous pedophile priest, no independent inquiry has been launched into the death of the 24-year-old Lynn mother of three at MCI-Framingham a month earlier.

Griffin had been convicted of no crime when she was confined to the state's prison for women on July 21 to await a court appearance the next day on an outstanding default warrant. Housing women yet to be charged at the same prison with those already convicted is not an uncommon practice, given the scarcity of services for women in the criminal justice system in Massachusetts.

But Griffin belonged in a detox unit, not a prison cell, according to the relatives, activists, and prisoners' rights lawyers who have taken up her case in the wake of her sudden death. Griffin was suffering symptoms of heroin withdrawal and other medical ills when she arrived at Framingham, says Howard Friedman, a civil rights attorney who is trying on her family's behalf to reconstruct events preceding her death.

"There are a limited number of facts we know, but one of them is that this woman did not belong in a state prison," says Friedman, who is seeking court and medical records to determine why she wound up at Framingham and what kind of care she got for the 24 hours she was there. "They may have revived her briefly at the hospital but this is a prison death." Griffin was pronounced dead at MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham.

Friedman is not the only one asking questions. The American Friends Service Committee, American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, Inc. are all disturbed by Griffin's death. Representative Deborah D. Blumer, a Framingham Democrat, thinks a legislative inquiry, public hearing, or both are warranted because of the systemic problems raised by the case.

"I have a lot of questions, from the arrest to the court action to the transfer to MCI-Framingham to how our failure to fund detox beds has turned Framingham into the detox system of last resort," says Blumer, who will ask the Women's Legislative Caucus this week to join her call for a probe of Griffin's death independent of the state Department of Correction. "It's hard to tell without the records where all the puzzle pieces fit, but the Post-Audit Committee has subpoena power so we might need to go that route."

Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat, has been fighting for years to establish an advisory board to provide independent oversight of the state prison system, routine in other states, but the legislation languishes and dies each year on Beacon Hill. "Prisoners are not a very popular constituency," notes Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, which provides legal aid to inmates.

And female inmates are less visible than men, says John Reinstein of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "Men's prisons always get more public attention, maybe because the women lack the raw brutality we saw in the Geoghan case," he suggests. "But Kelly Jo Griffin is still dead."

Complaints about the inadequacy of substance abuse programs for women statewide and the quality of medical care at the women's prison in particular go back decades. A number of suicides and deaths in the 1990s at Framingham raised specific questions of medical negligence and broader doubts about then-governor William F. Weld's decision to privatize prison health services.

Prisoners' advocates were hopeful that care would improve this year when the University of Massachusetts-Worcester won the state contract from the much-criticized Correctional Medical Services of St. Louis.

"It might be better, but it didn't help Kelly Jo Griffin," notes Friedman. "We just want to know what happened."

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