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State prison assault data fuel debate

After transfer of inmates, one site sees crime spike

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / November 22, 2009

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Statistics provided by state prison officials last week indicate that assaults have spiked at the maximum-security facility in Shirley and plunged at the Walpole prison, after the state’s most dangerous prisoners were transferred from Walpole to Shirley.

The figures appeared to bolster an argument by the Department of Correction that a recent spate of violence at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley stemmed from the new prisoners and not from the Patrick administration’s controversial decision to start double-bunking inmates in some cells starting in January, which has been the target of intense criticism by correctional officers and advocates for prisoners.

“What this shows,’’ said Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the prison system, “is that the increase in assaults has nothing to do with double-bunking and everything to do with the type of inmate now housed at Souza-Baranowski, which is now the department’s primary maximum-security prison. . . . It’s pretty clear.’’

Assaults by inmates on correction officers and fellow prisoners at Souza-Baranowski rose nearly 60 percent in the first 10 months of this year over the same period last year, according to statistics provided to the Globe. But assaults at Cedar Junction fell by 56 percent for the same periods.

Wiffin added that Souza-Baranowski, which opened in 1998, is a state-of-the-art prison that is better equipped to hold “problematic inmates’’ than Cedar Junction, a grim complex that opened in 1956 and housed Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, among other notorious convicts. Most of Cedar Junction was downgraded from maximum- to medium-security as of June 1 after the transfer of inmates to Souza-Baranowski.

The newer prison, Wiffin said, has solid cell doors, brighter lighting, and many more surveillance cameras, and is designed to separate potentially violent inmates from one another. In contrast, she said, some cell doors at Cedar Junction have bars, enabling inmates to reach out and injure others.

But Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services and a critic of double-bunking, said it was impossible to draw any conclusions from the statistics because the Department of Correction did not provide complete data. In a letter responding to the Globe’s records request, the department said it included aggravated assaults and sexual assaults but omitted two disciplinary categories that cover inmates involved in fights.

Walker said that when her group recently requested the number of assaults by prisoners on fellow inmates for 2008 at the two prisons, the department included those categories and provided a total of 533 - nearly double the 276 that the prison system provided Thursday for all of last year.

“They’re incomplete, and they underestimate the level of violence,’’ Walker said of the new data. Many inmates, Walker added, have told her that double-bunking has precipitated violence at Souza-Baranowski.

Wiffin said that when the department responded to the Globe’s records request, it only counted assaults in which there was a clear assailant and victim. But she expected the overall trends would hold if the department added the other categories.

One of the most outspoken critics of double-bunking, Steve Kenneway, president of the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, disputed that the trends reflect that the state has moved the most violent inmates from one prison to another.

He said forcing convicted criminals to share cells at Souza-Baranowski has infuriated prisoners and caused them to lash out at each other and at correction officers with a ferocity and frequency never seen at Cedar Junction, which has never double-bunked.

“It’s a tinderbox, to the degree that the wrong statement to the wrong inmate is just going to make that place blow,’’ said Kenneway.

On Nov. 4, a Souza-Baranowski prison inmate slashed the neck of one correction officer and stabbed another in the cheek with a homemade knife, and Kenneway said the attack occurred after the prisoner was told he had to share a cell. Both correction officers were treated at a hospital and released shortly afterward. Two other officers suffered minor injuries in the incident, said prison officials.

There have been other significant attacks at Souza-Baranowski in recent months. On Oct. 8, an inmate was stabbed 32 times, according to his lawyer. In May, the prison’s superintendent, Thomas Dickhaut, was struck above the eye by an inmate during a routine meeting with prisoners.

Kenneway also disputed that Souza-Baranowski is better suited to house the most violent inmates. He said inmates there have used metal from bed frames to make homemade knives but could not do that easily at Cedar Junction because the beds there have sturdier frames.

The statistics provided by the prison system indicated that assaults on staff and inmates at Souza-Baranowski rose from 222 for the first 10 months of 2008 to 355 during the same period this year, or 59.9 percent. Assaults at Cedar Junction fell from 410 for the first 10 months of 2008 to 179 during the same period, or 56.3 percent.

Following the Nov. 4 attack, Harold W. Clarke, the commissioner of the Department of Correction, said violence had surged at Souza-Baranowski but that it had nothing to do with double-bunking.

“These very same inmates were assaulting officers or attempting to assault officers at Cedar Junction, and they are now at Souza-Baranowski,’’ he said.

Clarke, who headed the prison systems in Nebraska and then Washington State before Governor Deval Patrick appointed him in November 2007, told the Globe a year ago that overcrowding in the prison system had left him with little choice but to double-bunk some inmates at Souza-Baranowski. But he said that prisoners already shared cells or dorms in the state’s 16 medium- and minimum-security prisons and that Souza-Baranowski cells were originally designed to house two inmates.

Since double-bunking began, Souza-Baranowski’s inmate population has climbed sharply - from 1,036 on Nov. 17 last year to 1,279 now, said Wiffin. Of the 1,279 inmates at Souza-Baranowski, 382 are sharing cells.

Cedar Junction now has 670 inmates, compared with 789 a year ago, Wiffin said. Although Cedar Junction is now largely a medium-security prison, it still has maximum-security sections for new inmates awaiting classification or for those held in a segregation unit.

The number of homemade weapons seized from inmates at Souza-Baranowski is more than triple this year what it was for all of 2008, according to Jim Pingeon, litigation director for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, citing data he said he obtained from the prison system. Prison officials confiscated 74 weapons last year and 233 so far this year.

“The number of weapons at SBCC has gone up much more than [the influx of new prisoners] would suggest,’’ Pingeon said. “One of the problems with double-bunking is that people are afraid of their cellmates, and one way to relieve your anxiety would be to obtain a weapon, just in case.’’

Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com