January 11, 2017

Baker hails correctional officers’ response, lack of major injuries, in wake of prison riot at Souza-Baranowski

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Mass. Department of Correction / State House News Service

A cell at Souza-Baranowski maximum security prison in Shirley.

About 50 inmates rioting Monday at the state’s maximum security prison in Shirley prepared themselves for “war” against the facility’s correctional officers before they were subdued by those officers using dogs and pepper spray, the state’s top public safety official said.

The approach taken by prison officials at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center was successful in preventing any serious injuries or death.

“There were some minor injuries, nothing serious, and I commend everybody for maintaining their cool, following their protocol and doing the things they needed to do to make sure that nobody got hurt,” Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters Tuesday, Jan. 10.

“We can always replace damaged furniture and stuff like that. It’s much harder to deal with situations and circumstances in which someone gets hurt.”

Public Safety and Security Secretary Dan Bennett said that after rebelling against orders to return to their cells, inmates at the prison fashioned furniture, computers and safety equipment into weapons to be used against correctional officers (COs), and disarmed security cameras.

“You had 47 inmates ready to take on those COs and they had armed themselves with knives, bats and iron pipes, and they were going to go after the COs,” Bennett said. “They were getting ready for war.”

According to the Department of Correction, two high-ranking gang members got into a fight on Monday, and while correctional officers were returning inmates to their cells two other inmates fought.

Though correctional officers were able to restrain one of the fighting inmates and escort him from the unit, other inmates resisted the efforts by officers to return them to their cells, and officials then pulled staff from the housing unit to protect their safety, a prison official wrote in an account of Monday’s events.

“They tried to negotiate to get the prisoners to go back into the cells. When it was apparent that the prisoners were not going to go back into the cells, the COs backed out of the unit to make sure that there was no violence and no one got hurt,” Bennett said.

“At that point, once they backed out, the prisoners began to break apart tables; to arm themselves; went into areas where the COs normally were; broke that apart; tried to remove the gas masks out of there; then took the computers and broke those down and made knives and shivs; then took other articles and made knives; and they started to get ready for the COs to come back in.”

At around 3:50 p.m. the superintendent “declared a disorder in the P1 unit” where the riot occurred, according to the Department of Correction, and at about 7 p.m. members of the Special Operations Unit returned to the out-of-control unit and restored order with pepper spray and dogs.”The COs used pepper spray to get in there, and the pepper spray was significant enough that the inmates started to give themselves up – groups of five at a time, groups of one at a time – until

“The COs used pepper spray to get in there, and the pepper spray was significant enough that the inmates started to give themselves up — groups of five at a time, groups of one at a time — until finally they all gave up, all 47 of them,” Bennett said. “The State Police came to assist and they waited. They waited until they were ready. And then they used the pepper spray and they got the dogs. And they could hear the dogs barking and then they gave in.”

Photos provided by the Department of Correction show upturned furniture in the prison, wires hanging from the ceiling, smashed glass and confiscated shivs. Bennett said he had viewed video of the incident.

Named after two correctional staff members killed during a 1972 prison escape attempt, Souza-Baranowski is part of a correctional complex in Shirley, and the 500,000 square-foot maximum security prison is the department’s newest correctional facility, opening in 1998, according to its website.

Gang fights in the prison can pit inmates from one unit against inmates from another, according to Bennett.

“There were two inmates that got in a fistfight and they were from different units. … You’re supposed to get all the inmates back into their cells and that way you make sure that it’s not a gang-related fight, because the units are broken up that way,” Bennett said. “If it’s a gang-related fight, what can happen is one unit can go after another unit.”

Asked for elaboration on how gangs are handled, Bennett spokesman Felix Browne said the department “works to keep known enemies separate.”

According to the Department of Correction, the inmates involved in Monday’s incident will be housed in “segregation units” and will face disciplinary actions and potential criminal charges.

Baker said the prison population has dropped since he took office two years ago, and the staffing levels in the Department of Correction are appropriate.

“Since January of 2015 when we took office we’re down almost 13 percent in the prison population, and that’s made it possible for us to reposition many of our correctional officers, and we believe at this point that our staffing is appropriate,” Baker said.

A reporter asked Bennett whether Aaron Hernandez, the former Patriots tight end and convicted murderer, was involved. Bennett responded, “I do not comment ever on who is in what facility.”

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