The Massachusetts Department of Corrections has been under increased scrutiny since the murder of a high profile inmate in August, 2003. A panel appointed to investigate systemic issues related to the murder issued a report in February, 2004 after a four month review. The Governor has appointed a Commission to review the entire Department structure, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Safety held an initial hearing in October, 2003, into the same issues with more hearings contemplated. The Commissioner for the Department under whom the murder occurred either resigned or was fired at the end of 2003 and on March 16th, 2004 a new Commissioner was appointed. A number of organizations including the CJPC are concerned about the environment within Massachusetts’ prisons and have advocated systemic changes for many years.
A partial list of issues within the Department are 1) its classification system used to place inmates in prisons with different levels of security; 2) lack of minimum security prisons frustrating Parole orders granted by the Parole Board which include a term in a minimum security prison (or transitional housing) before being released to the community; 3) possible abuse of disciplinary reports by Correctional Officers for personal harassment of individual inmates;4) lack of substance abuse treatment, educational and vocational training within prisons; 5) the use of isolation for extended periods (months and even years) as a behavior modification tool; 6) possible abuse of psychotropic drugs to manage tensions along with lack of correctional officer training in mental health crisis management; and 6) lack of public accountability of the entire system, which currently absorbs more of the state budget than does education.
The CJPC along with many other organizations has advocated the creation of an ongoing independent citizen review board as one means of addressing these concerns as well as others.
The Department of Correction Advisory Council: a Mid-year Report
By Dorothy Weitzman
The Governor's Commission on Corrections Reform (GCCR) issued its Final Report on June 30, 2004. The report included in its eighteen recommendations, "an external advisory board on corrections to monitor and oversee the Department. This board should work cooperatively with the Commissioner to develop concrete goals for the future of the department."
In response to this recommendation, Governor Romney issued an Executive Order on September 15, 2004, creating a Department of Correction Advisory Council that would operate until September 15, 2005. The order authorized a 17 member council and specified that it would include the Commissioners of the Department of Public Health and the Department of Mental Health (go to www.cjpc.org/doc_order_creates_board.htm; also see www.cjpc.org/GovCommission_Corrections_Reform.pdf for the text of the Governor's Commission on Corrections Reform.). The Governor charged the Council with advising the Department of Correction (DOC) on matters of concern, and monitoring the progress of implementation of the Commission's eighteen recommendations. The eighteen recommendations may be found at on the second page of the CJPC commentary on the Final Report, at www.cjpc.org/doc_harshbarger_commentary.htm.
The Governor initially intended to reappoint the members of his Corrections Reform Commission to be the Advisory Council. Many advocacy organizations had wanted a longer mandate, and had urged the Governor to consider appointing representatives from the public; neither of these urgings were acted on. The Council is operating on a budget of $100,000 from the DOC.
The Council began monthly meetings in the first week of December. The Executive Order required a six month report, which was due March 15th; a two month extension for issuing that interim report has been requested. DOC Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy and members of her staff have attended all meetings. The Council has requested a written report on each of the eighteen recommendations as a basis for the interim report. The Commission's final report included, as recommendations 12 and 13, that "there should be a dedicated external review of inmate health and mental health services" and "a dedicated external review of issues pertaining to female offenders in the Department's custody." Task forces in these two areas have been operating under leadership of the DOC with select members of the Council. Many who have been interested in follow-up of the Commission's work had hoped that these two task forces would operate as truly external to the DOC (as the original Commission did), that they would be more visible to the public, and that each would have representation of service providers and advocacy groups in the areas being considered. Council staff has indicated that written statements or phone calls to share information and concerns in these areas are welcome and would be circulated to Council members.
Several other task forces were operating even while the GCCR was taking testimony. The DOC had constructed a task force on classification; another focused on disciplinary proceedings. Last December the Commissioner announced that a prototype classification system was to be put in place in January of this year; it appears that model system is still awaiting a trial run. The Commission has two part time staff members, both of whom were staff to the previous Commission: Carolyn K. Walsh and Rebecca Webb. Eight of the members of the original Commission continue to serve on the Council and six new persons have been added (see the lists below). Two members of the House of Representatives are still to be appointed to the Council, and suggestions for an attorney with experience in prisoner litigation or criminal defense can be made.
Scott Harshbarger, Chair Senator Jarrett Barrios (D. Cambridge) R. Michael Cassidy, Assoc. Prof., Boston College Law School Elyse Clawson, Ex. Dir., Crime and Justice Institute Sheriff Frank G. Cousins, Jr. Michael V. Fair, Security Response Technologies, Inc. former DOC Commissioner Joyce Murphy, Pres., Caritas Carney Hospital, Pres. Douglas H. Wilkins, Partner, Anderson and Kreiger, LLP, Partner
Members of the Council who did not serve on the Commission
Paul Cate, Commissioner, Dept of Public Health Elizabeth Child, Commissioner, Department of Mental Health Timothy Cruz, District Attorney, Plymouth County Ed Davis, Superintendent, Lowell Police Department Senator Robert Hedlund (R. Weymouth) Robert Watson, CEO/Chair, LPM Holding Company
Information of use to the review of the recommended changes can be directed to the Department of Correction Advisory Council, Exec. Office of Public Safety, 1 Ashburton Place, Rm. 2133, Boston, MA 02108. The Council may be emailed at Rebecca.firstname.lastname@example.org or Carolyn.email@example.com; Council's staff phone number are (617) 727-7775 ext. 25506 (for Rebecca Webb) or ext. 25520 (for Carolyn Walsh).