Columnist Lindsay Sabadosa: ‘Anyone would go crazy under those conditions’

  • Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, of the 1st Hampshire District, speaks at a press conference in January in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 2/20/2020 7:00:20 PM
Modified: 2/20/2020 7:00:10 PM

“Hey, is that club still there? The one on that street right downtown Northampton. The one with all the bands?”

I stepped back from the vent we were speaking through to look at the face of the man I was interviewing. The conversation had centered on a completely different topic up until now but this reference to something normal and familiar had temporarily jolted me back into the outside world as I searched my brain for the name of a club downtown Northampton.

“Pearl Street?” I asked, realizing quickly that I was standing too far away from the vent for the man to hear me. I repeated my answer right next to the vent. I couldn’t see his whole face from this angle but I could see his eyes crinkle with recognition.

“Yeah, that’s right. Pearl Street. Man, it gets hot in there.”

I gently steered the conversation back to the list of questions I had brought with me, but that moment in a day of otherwise horrendous accounts offered a glimmer of humanity and a reminder that the people I was interviewing had once been outside, in our communities, and many of them will be again.

The scene of this exchange was a no-contact visitation room at Souza Baranowski Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in Shirley, the only one in Massachusetts, and as such, home to people from across the state, including the man I was speaking to who had once lived in Northampton.

No-contact visitation rooms are much like you might have seen in the movies: a long row of plastic windows with a partition between each to offer some privacy but, unlike in the movies, there are vents at Souza rather than a telephone attached to the wall, meaning both parties have to stand, kneel, squat, or otherwise contort their bodies to keep their mouths and ears respectively mere centimeters from the vent in order to hear or to be heard.

The room is also loud and to my left and right, in different stalls, other legislators were asking questions of other prisoners. “When was your last shower?” “Is any of your property missing?” “Have you been able to make a phone call?” “Are you getting full portions of meals?”

On Jan. 10, 2020, three correctional officers at Souza had been assaulted by a group of prisoners, leading to serious injury. In response, the prison had gone on lockdown, but unlike other lockdowns, it stayed on lockdown for weeks. All prisoners who had been involved in the assault were immediately transferred to other prisons.

Those who remained however were all subject to the same treatment. All their property, including their legal documents, was taken away. Everyone was locked in their cells for nearly 24 hours a day. The tactical team, a group of correctional officers who do not normally work at Souza, patrolled the prison regularly, armed with tasers, non-lethal weapons such as bean-bag guns, pepper spray guns and guns that shoot small rubber projectiles, and dogs.

Attorneys were denied access to clients for two weeks. No visits were allowed. Despite having removed everyone who had participated in the Jan. 10 attack, the rest of the prison was punished, severely, and the reports, which began to filter out, were horrific.

My visit was spurred by the fact that legislators are one of the few groups who can, at any time, visit and inspect Massachusetts prisons, and, as such, five of us made an unannounced visit to Souza on Feb. 2 to interview prisoners to confirm the reports we had been receiving. Those reports included repeated use of excessive force, assaults on prisoners, including dog bites, and prisoners being locked in their cell nearly 24 hours a day.

Over the course of six hours, interviewee after interviewee confirmed these stories. Men lifted their shirts to show us taser burns. They rolled up pant legs to show dog bites. One didn’t have to make any effort at all as it was quite clear that his eye socket had been smashed. Many others showed us deep cuts to their wrists and arms and ligature marks from suicide attempts over recent weeks. They spoke of filth and fear and concern for their own sanity.

The superintendent, as he spoke to legislators before and after these interviews, said the number of people asking for mental health care at the prison has spiked and that they cannot possibly meet the demand. I would argue that if you lock anyone up for nearly 24 hours a day, this is a very normal consequence: anyone would go crazy under those conditions.

Souza has changed since that first visit. Some property has been restored. Visits have resumed. Men are allowed out of their cells for two hours a day. Yet things are not back to normal and even what was “normal” should never be acceptable to the people of Massachusetts.

While Souza does have people who are serving life in prison, most of these men will someday return to our communities. Some I spoke to will be back in months, others in years. What will this time have done to make them successful when they leave prison? What kind of people will they be after the Department of Corrections has locked them in cells for 22 hours a day for five, 10, 15 or 20 years without programming, without a job, and without regular contact with their families?

The story of Souza is currently in the news a great deal but, as with all things, it will once again stop capturing headlines. Yet if we as a community forget about it, we will deal with the consequences.

There are two bills that could make a start. One is S. 1362, An Act to Create Uniform Standards in Use of Force, Increase Transparency, and Reduce Harm, sponsored by Sen. Michael Barrett, which is before the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. This bill would mandate that data on use of force is collected and made publicly available.

The second is An Act to Establish a Correctional Oversight Commission, sponsored by Rep. Chynah Tyler and also before the Public Safety Committee. H2142 establishes a commission of correctional experts to analyze information about our correctional system in Massachusetts, ensure that policies and procedures are adequate and being followed, that reforms are being implemented and that recommendations are made to improve the system for residents of the commonwealth.

These bills will not fix everything, but they are a start, and, for a prison where neither correctional officers nor prisoners feel safe, the important thing right now is to not let these stories fade off but to make sure we are making a start toward something better.

Lindsay Sabadosa is a Northampton resident and the state representative for the 1st Hampshire District. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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