On Wednesday, September 15, by executive order Governor Mitt Romney created a seventeen member Department of Correction Advisory Council. This council is charged with monitoring the implementation of the many recommenda-tions of the Governor’s Commission on Corrections Reform, as found in that Commission’s Report of June 30th. Romney indicated that he is appointing Scott Harshbarger to chair this council; Harshbarger, a former MA Attorney General, chaired the Commission whose report is the basis for the anticipated changes within the DOC.
The Council is to consist of a designee of the Commissioner of Public Health and of the Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and four legislators -one majority party member and one minority party member from the Senate and also from the House, all of whom shall be members of the Commit- tee of Public Safety or the Committee of Criminal Justice. In addition the Gover-nor will appoint a district attorney, a sheriff, a chief of police, and expert on priso- ner reentry, and attorney with experience in criminal justice or state government, an attorney with experience in prisoner litigation or criminal defense, a college or university professor with experience in criminal justice, a corrections policy ex-pert, a health care expert with corrections experience, a person with corrections management not currently employed by the DOC and a Chairperson, with experience in state government.
The Council is expected to meet at least six times within the coming year, to work with the DOC advocating for continued reforms, and as appropriate pro- pose modifications to the Commission’s original recommendations. They are expressly charged with making recommendations relative to inmate mental and physical health and also relative to issues pertaining the female offenders within state custody. The Council is scheduled to finish its work within the year at which time the executive order will expire, unless the Governor extends its life.
The immediate cause of this development is the announcement by the family of the inmate murdered at Bridgewater State Hospital last month of a pending $!50 million lawsuit against the DOC and the state for negligence. This murder happened slightly more than one year after John Geoghan was murdered at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Both murders are presumed by the commonwealth to be entirely the result of another inmate, acting on his own.
In the same Report, a recommendation was made to establish an office of Inspector General with the authority to investigate criminal abuse or misconduct and to recommend sanctions to either the DOC or to the Attorney General. Such an office, staffed with dedicated trained investigators would receive information from all parties within the DOC including inmates, and anonymity guaranteed, in order to prevent reprisals. The Report recognized that the two recommendations go hand in glove, and neither can do the work of the other.
There will be a police investigation as a precursor to arraigning the suspected murderer. The murder of an inmate also calls for a review of relevant policies and procedures. However, when murder is not an obvious cause of death (e.g. Kelly Jo Griffen, who died in July a year ago while in Framingham -MCI awaiting trial, her death apparently from substance abuse withdrawal while under the care of the DOC) or with lesser violence such as severe beatings which often escape the attention of law enforcement, the oversight board, without trained investigators, is less likely to find out about or investigate such individual instances than would an inspector general operating outside the authority of the DOC.
Earlier in the week, DOC Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy told the press, “So much that happens in Corrections happens behind a ball. There is an air of secrecy. This [review board] is about transparency.” The level of transparency remains a question. A CJPC request for DOC documents published in January of this year and part of the material reviewed by the Commission remains under review by lawyers for the Exec. Office of Public Safety, as does a request to see transcripts of the prisoner focus groups conducted by the Commission, with names redacted. The Governor’s office has yet to establish a record of trans- parency regarding the DOC. Hopefully this new panel, a result of a very public murder, will begin a new and higher level of transparency for an agency that consumes $1 billion state tax dollars annually.