Appeals Court Grants Access to Prison Double-Bunking Documents

April 29, 2010 12:00 am

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Doubling-up in cells led to increased tension and fear among prisoners and staff, and resulted in a higher level of violence.


BOSTON — Today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld a lower court ruling granting the public access to documents about double-bunking at the state’s only maximum security prison, the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC) in Shirley, Massachusetts.

The documents in question — which were requested by Prison Legal Services (PLS), formerly Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services (MCLS), in November of 2008 — detail the classification system that the Department of Correction (DOC) uses to decide which prisoners will be housed alone, which prisoners will be doubled in a cell, and with whom.

In 2008, the Department of Correction (DOC) decided to create a “mission change” for MCI Cedar Junction (Walpole), which housed maximum security prisoners, and to consolidate all of the state’s maximum security prisoners at SBCC. To make room, DOC began to double-bunk prisoners at SBCC, all of whom had been single-celled in the past. Prisoners at SBCC are locked in their cells 19 hours per day.

The change led to a significant level of tension and fear among the prisoners and staff, and resulted in an increased level of violence. After receiving complaints about enemies being bunked together, double-celled prisoners being allowed to fight each other for hours, and high tensions about how the double-bunking was unfolding, PLS formally requested the tool or instrument that DOC was using to make these decisions. When the DOC refused, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed suit on PLS’s behalf.

“The DOC never had any basis for refusing to allow the public to see these documents,” said cooperating attorney Scott Lewis of Anderson & Kreiger. “We are pleased that the Appeals Court squarely rejected the DOC’s arguments and reaffirmed that tools used by government agencies to effect policy are subject to public disclosure. The double-bunking of maximum security inmates is inherently risky, and the tools the DOC uses to determine which inmates share cells should be open to public scrutiny and debate.”

“Prisoners, prison staff and the public have a right to know whether there are adequate systems in place to prevent violence,” said PLS executive director Leslie Walker. “We hope that given today’s court ruling, DOC will release these documents immediately.”

“No prison sentence should carry the risk of violent injury caused by overcrowding and the mixing of medium and maximum-security prison populations,” said ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney Laura Rótolo. “This lawsuit seeks to shine a light on what is happening inside the Souza Baranowski facility, for which we are all responsible.”

Scott Lewis and Christine M. Griffin of the law firm Anderson & Kreiger represent PLS in this lawsuit, together with ACLU of Massachusetts legal director John Reinstein and staff attorney Laura Rótolo.

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