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Sunday, March 20, 2005

Changes, reforms come slowly at state prisons

By Shaun Sutner TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
[email protected]

It's one thing to be tough on crime, but it's tougher to be smart on crime.

Kathleen M. Dennehy,
NEW STATE CORRECTION COMMISSIONER

Reform is making fitful progress in the Bay State penal system nearly two years after a frail former priest, convicted of molesting a boy, was savagely beaten to death by another inmate at a maximum security prison in Central Massachusetts.

State correction officials say they want to alter the course of a decade's worth of "tough-on-crime" correction and sentencing policies, which have resulted in less rehabilitation and more prisoners locked up in higher security settings for longer stretches of time, and then being released with little preparation for life on the outside.

Efforts to change the $500 million-a-year state prison system have been halting, hampered by bureaucratic inertia, funding problems, intense opposition from the powerful correction officers union and apathy from a public that appears content as long as prison riots and escapes are kept to a minimum.

"Progress has been glacially slow," said James R. Pingeon, litigation director for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, a prisoner advocacy group that has supported new Correction Commissioner Kathleen M. Dennehy's reform efforts. "There's a lot on their plate in terms of making changes, and there's a lot of cultural resistance to change."

The deaths of two inmates last month at the overcrowded Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston show that violence and drug abuse still follow prisoners from the street to their lives behind bars.

Yet, besides a few activists, there is barely a constituency for the often violent lawbreakers from society's lowest economic ranks who populate Massachusetts' 18 prisons - from the campus-style work-release centers in Boston and Norfolk to the high-tech fortress on the Lancaster-Shirley line in which former priest John J. Geoghan was killed on Aug. 23, 2003.

Change is also under way at some of the state's 18 county jails and houses of correction. These facilities hold another 12,000 inmates, mostly suspects awaiting trial and offenders convicted of less serious crimes. At the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction, for example, newly elected Sheriff Guy W. Glodis is cracking down on prisoners' privileges as he copes with an outbreak of violence and contraband.

At the state Department of Correction, Ms. Dennehy has launched a series of changes recommended by a blue-ribbon commission chaired by former Bay State attorney general Scott Harshbarger in the wake of Mr. Geoghan's slaying at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Meanwhile, a new prison advisory council, spun off by the commission and chaired by Mr. Harshbarger, is expected to provide outside oversight of the system, although it has yet to produce meaningful guidelines.

Mr. Harshbarger, a Democrat who was appointed by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, gives a positive assessment of Ms. Dennehy's saying she is moving effectively on most of the 18 recommendations contained in his report of eight months ago.

"I give her a B-plus, well on the way to an A," Mr. Harshbarger said. "She's had remarkable success in terms of changing the culture and climate of the system."

With the changes she has already set in motion, a newly convicted pedophile priest, such as Paul Shanley can expect a safer stay in prison, he said.

"I think the systems are in place to assure people that at least every reasonable effort is being made, and I feel much more confident than I did a year ago that that kind of thing won't happen again," he said. "If tragedy can ever have a benefit, Father Geoghan being murdered allowed us to spot problems and patterns in the system."

Ms. Dennehy, an appointee of Mr. Romney who often sounds like a policy expert from the era of liberal Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, is overhauling old procedures that were blamed in part for the brutal killing of Mr. Geoghan. The ex-priest was allegedly killed by Joseph L. Druce, a convicted murderer of a gay man who was placed by correction officials in the same protective custody unit as Mr. Geoghan. The unit is meant to protect vulnerable inmates from violent ones.

Ms. Dennehy, a career correction official, says her approach to reform reflects the reality that the policies of Mr. Romney's Republican predecessors of the 1990s have not worked.

With persistently high recidivism rates and skyrocketing correction spending - driven by escalating guard salaries and expensive medical care for an inmate population that increasingly suffers from mental illness and chronic ailments such as AIDS, hepatitis C and cardiovascular disease - the state has no choice but to be more pragmatic, she says.

"Let's be honest, high-end security beds cost more," said Ms. Dennehy, who was appointed a few months after Mr. Geoghan's murder to replace former commissioner Michael T. Maloney, who was fired after Mr. Geoghan was killed. "It's one thing to be tough on crime, but it's tougher to be smart on crime," she said.

Ms. Dennehy already has started hiring more prison teachers instead of guards. She has revised the internal investigation process by centralizing inquests in her office to limit the traditional practice of prison superintendents, in effect, investigating their own staffs and themselves.

She expects to make several other major changes within a few months, she said, including putting in place a less subjective method for classifying prisoners by dangerousness, requiring prison managers to take prisoners' complaints more seriously and revamping the system for disciplining prisoners.

Under the new classification system, Mr. Geoghan would have remained a level four, or medium-security, prisoner rather than being sent to level six, the highest-security level, at Souza-Baranowski. The new system will remove most discretion in sorting prisoners and substitute a scientific point-based system.

The prisoner grievance reform, another Harshbarger Commission recommendation, is in response to reports that prison administrators ignored the 68-year-old defrocked priest's complaints that he was being tormented by both correction officers and other inmates.

Ms. Dennehy also plans more ambitious - and likely more controversial - changes such as "stepping down" prisoners into lower-security facilities in preparation for their release. That would carry the added benefit of saving money that could be redirected to rehabilitation and education programs.

The commissioner, with the high-profile backing of Mr. Romney and Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, a former criminologist, also is promoting the idea of requiring ex-convicts to submit to mandatory post-release supervision. That, the administration says, is a way to keep ex-convicts from going back to prison, which will save money for taxpayers.

One key area for which prison reformers fault Ms. Dennehy is her changes to the protective custody system.

The Massachusetts prison system still has too few inmates in protective custody, they say, and not enough special units for those inmates most often tormented by other prisoners, such as pedophile priests, other sex offenders and informers.

"Geoghan was killed a year and a half ago, and it's just not that hard to create a safe protective-custody system," said Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. "She's cleaned up the units where the abuse was going on, but what has not occurred is increasing the number of protective custody units. They're all mixed up together in there."

Ms. Dennehy has been hounded at every step of reform by the 4,600-member Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, whose leaders accuse her of coddling prisoners, persecuting correction officers and putting the public's safety at risk to save a few pennies.

Last month, MCOFU called for her resignation for allegedly spending $100,000 on junkets, including a training conference in Worcester last summer that the commissioner defended as valuable, and for expanding the practice of "pullable posts," which allows prison managers to shift guards at will and which the union blames for several recent assaults on guards as well as for the Geoghan murder.

One thing the union does not like is that Ms. Dennehy, who has served as a superintendent and deputy commissioner, never worked as a guard. In the union's view, the former commissioner, who had served as an inmate counselor, at least had experience working directly with prisoners.

"You can talk policy until you're blue in the face, but until you walk the block with them you don't understand the impact some of the policies are going to have on the line officers and the inmates," said Steve Kenneway, MCOFU president. "She's definitely divorced from what it takes to get the job done on the ground level."

Mr. Kenneway also dismisses a key commission recommendation that the commissioner is proud to have accomplished: rewriting the Department of Correction's mission and vision statements to reflect an emphasis on reducing recidivism through "humane confinement" and "successful community re-entry of our offender population."

"It's a bunch of words. It's a regurgitation of touchy-feely stuff," Mr. Kenneway said. "As far as we're concerned, this rehabilitation approach is an old policy that was first tried in the 1970s and didn't work then, so we went to incarceration in the 1980s. Now we're going back to the old ways."

While union officials insist the prison system is understaffed and needs to hire 550 more correction officers to ensure safety and security, the administration points to the Harshbarger Commission finding that Massachusetts prisons have the second-lowest ratio of guards to prisoners in the country - a guard for every two prisoners - and that guards take home the third-highest salaries in the nation.

Guards' salaries start at about $60,000 and go up to $75,000, not including fringe benefits. Adjusted for inflation, guards' pay rose 29 percent to 35 percent between 1992 and 2002.

Meanwhile, the prison population in Massachusetts declined 7 percent between 1994 and 2003, according to a recent report by the Harshbarger Commission's research director, Anne Morrison Piehl, who is a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

According to the commission, correction officers, on average, also use 18 sick days a year and take 52 paid days off a year - figures the union bitterly disputes but which administration and DOC officials stand by.

"They're looking for job security, and I'm saying we need fewer prison guards and fewer cells, so I'm not surprised that the union is not on board with this," Lt. Gov. Healey said.

Contact Shaun Sutner by e-mail at [email protected]
 

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Ex-inmates reflect on confinement

Prison ‘gives you the opportunity to sit back and look’

By Jason Feifer TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF







Linked articles:
» A window to reform (3/20/2005)






Two ex-convicts, both struggling to overcome addiction and to shake off the years they spent in prison, sat inside the library of Jeremiah’s Inn in Worcester last month and evaluated their lives.

They had both struggled with heroin addiction, which led them to commit acts that put them behind bars. They admit they had been given opportunities in the past to turn themselves around, but they were too blind or full of pride to see them. Now, they said, they’re ready. They’re making the full effort.

But their reflections upon their time in prison highlight a dual mentality that many former inmates carry. They simultaneously despise and applaud the system they’ve spent years going through.

For the two men at Jeremiah’s — Dennis Roy, 48, of Worcester and Al, 42, who asked that his last name not be used — prison was no more than a storage bin, a place to rot and grow bitter. “It’s going to make people angrier,” Mr. Roy said. “There’s no place to vent, no place to go.”

But then Walter Spencer, executive director of Jeremiah’s Inn, who was sitting with them, asked if prison didn’t at least serve as a turning point in their lives. Even if it wasn’t pleasant, he asked, didn’t it pluck them from their addictions, and put them in a position to better themselves?

Immediately the men agreed. Without prison, “I’d probably be dead myself. It’s hard to say,” said Mr. Roy. A moment later, he elaborated: “It gives you the opportunity to sit back and look. If you can take whatever opportunities are available to you, that’s up to you.”

The quick turnaround in opinion these men displayed was seen over and over in interviews with numerous former inmates who are in varying stages of recovery. From those recently released from prison to those on the outside for years, the former inmates consistently mixed their condemnation of the prison experience with their appreciation for it. One minute they said they felt dehumanized; the next they said they’d be lost without it.

“I think everything happens for a reason. Me being incarcerated for 10 years, it slowed me down,” said Worcester resident Brian S. Cronin, 36, who was in prison for nearly a decade. “That pause in between my life, it was hard, but it possibly could have saved my life. There are two sides to everything.”

That’s not to say these ex-inmates are supportive of how prisons are operated. In fact, many former prisoners became most passionate when talking about Department of Correction policies. They know how the system operates, and have their visions of what would be most effective.

Some former inmates want a system in which every minute of every day is structured. One said he’d like to see factories built alongside prisons, so the inmates could do something productive.

Department of Correction politics is practically a spectator sport inside prison, many said. When there is news of a new prison policy, or when a department official makes an appearance on television, rumors and speculation run rampant, according to Edgar J. Bowser III, an inmate in MCI-Norfolk.

“That has a direct impact on our lives,” he said.
 
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