Unstandardized prison removal procedures may contribute to excessive force, state lawmaker says

(Ye-Jinghan / Unsplash)

By Prithvi Tikhe
Boston University Statehouse Program

This article was originally published in the Telegram.

BOSTON – The lack of state-wide standardized procedures to remove prisoners from cells may contribute to incidents of excessive force at a number of Massachusetts prisons and houses of correction, according to a state lawmaker who has called for the creation of standards to avoid incidents.

“We want all prisoners and inmates to be treated well and with dignity because we know those same folks will be returning to our neighborhoods within Worcester,” said state Rep. Mary S. Keefe, D-Worcester, who introduced a bill last year that would require the commissioner of the Department of Correction to create uniform standards for emergency and planned cell extractions (removing inmates from cells) and governing the use of chemical agents between state prisons and county jails and houses of correction in Massachusetts.

The bill was sent for study as the Legislature adjourned in August.

The Worcester County Jail and House of Correction has pretrial detainees and inmates sentenced to 2½ years or less. It currently houses about 1,100 inmates and has a staff of more than 600.

According to data for the last two years, from Nov. 11, 2016, to Nov. 13, 2018, there were 13 reports of excessive use of force at Worcester County House of Correction, according to Jesse White, a staff attorney for the Prison Brutality Project of Prisoners’ Legal Services.

“This makes Worcester County the fourth highest county in the state for reported excessive use of force, after Suffolk County and Bristol County, each of which have had 19 reports, and Essex County, which had 14 reports,” Ms. White said.

Spontaneous use of force happens generally in response to an incident that occurs outside of a prisoner’s cell, such as a fight or a refusal to follow orders. It occurs when officers enter a prisoner’s cell and forcibly removes the prisoner without prior planning during an emergency, such as to stop an active suicide attempt.

Planned cell extraction, or planned use of force, happens in a non-emergency situation when a prisoner is inside a locked cell and there is time for officers to take measured action in accordance with standard operating procedures.

The state Department of Correction has a policy on use of force when removing a prisoner from a cell, and each county has its own policy. The counties are required to comply with the state regulations.

The state Department of Correction has a use of force policy for spontaneous and planned uses of force, including when removing a prisoner from a cell that applies to state prisons only. Each county has its own distinct use of force policy, but they all must comply with the use of force regulations governing the counties.

“Right now, accidents of geography dictate whether or not prisoners are more or less likely to be subjected to egregious use of force practices that subject them to greater risk of harm and trauma,” Ms. White said.

Corrections officers can use a semi-automatic riot gun called the FN 303, which shoots metal tipped rubber bullets intended for use as a riot control weapon, she said. But in a typical removal of an inmate from a cell at the Worcester County House of Correction, a cell extraction is used against a prisoner at a distance of less than 5 to 10 feet; the inmate cannot get any farther away, Ms. White said.

By establishing uniform standards that have been reviewed and accepted, Ms. Keefe said, the legislation will ensure that there is no abuse of power.

David Tuttle, superintendent at the WCHC, argued that it’s not best for the safety of inmates or officers to have “black-and-white standards.”

“We’re dealing with 6,000 men a year that come through the doors,” he said. “They all have different issues; they all have different things going on in their lives; they all act differently.”

Among other measures, the proposed legislation would require the commissioner to identify all chemical agents acceptable to use during use of force and ban kinetic impact weapons or “less lethal” weapons, such as the FN 303.

Mr. Tuttle said the Worcester County facility uses FN 303, although “it’s not used very often.”

So far this year, it has been used three times out of 178 activations. In 2017, it was used seven times out of 222 activations and in 2016, it was used eight times out of 103 activations.

Ms. White said that since much of the WCHC is double-bunked, in many cases an uninvolved cellmate is subjected to the FN 303 or chemical agents deployed when a prisoner is removed from a cell.

Mr. Tuttle noted that not all units at the facility are double-bunked. “If for some reason, we can’t safely remove the cellmate they may be affected by OC (pepper) spray. There are very few times this happens. It is not the norm.”

Mr. Tuttle said the weapon is a good tool to have for crowd control if an inmate is being violent or harming himself or somebody else. The officers don’t carry any sort of chemical agent on them, and if one has to be used, they use only pepper spray, which has to be provided by a commanding officer, he said.

Ms. White argued that many planned removals of inmates from their cells are unnecessary. It would be a better practice and result in less trauma to both prisoners and staff to allow for much longer cooling-off periods if a prisoner is refusing to comply with orders, she said.

Mr. Tuttle said the Worcester County facility has extensive procedures on documenting movement of prisoners and the use of a Strategic Operations Group since 2006. It was developed because officers were getting injured, but there has only been one officer injured since 2006 and one inmate sent to the hospital after use of force with SOG.

The facility compiles use-of-force packages with video from cameras in the hallways (around 200 a year), staff reports from those who responded, what they did and what they saw and medical reports. Of the 200, 140 of them are compliant moves, such as inmates acting up in their cell. They use SOG to deal with inmates who are acting up/cell extractions, and to transport inmates to court who are violent.

As a matter of policy, supervisors and administrators review the videos.

Mr. Tuttle stressed that correction officers first try to talk the inmate out of the cell, before resorting to force.

However, Emmanuel Martinez, a former inmate, did not completely agree.

“Yes, the officers talk to us, but there is no respect or dignity in the way they speak, which escalates the situation,” said Mr. Martinez, who works at Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, a nonprofit organization in Worcester that helps ex-offenders after prison.

According to Ms. White, in the Department of Correction when it is planned to remove a prisoner from a cell, a third party, usually a mental health clinician, will speak with the prisoner very briefly to ask if they will comply with orders.

“We don’t have mental health staff here 24/7,” Mr. Tuttle said. “If we have an emergency at 3 in the morning and someone is trying to kill or self-injure themselves, and we have to enter the cell, we can’t wait for mental health (professionals) to show up to work with the person first.”

Although he disagreed with certain elements of the proposed legislation, Mr. Tuttle said he welcomes standards that would require correctional officers to wear body cameras during both planned and emergency cell extractions. The proposed legislation would require body cameras.

There are multiple cameras at the WCHC that record the movement of prisoners and officers.

Mr. Tuttle hopes that with the legislation comes funding to help correctional officers buy the equipment and get training.

He said the Worcester County House of Correction officers use a handheld camera, which includes audio recording, when removing prisoners from cells. They do not listen or view the footage prior to submitting their report on the use of force.

But Mr. Martinez disagreed the process was used in his case.

“I was attacked by six to seven officers, one of whom hit me with a chair,” he said. “There was no video and I felt great fear for my life.”

“Mr. Martinez is a liar,” Mr. Tuttle said when asked about the incident.

Mr. Tuttle said he has a video that shows the Strategic Operations Group’s move and the area where Mr. Martinez assaulted the staff.

He said the House of Correction has extensively documented Strategic Operations Group behavior since 2006.

The video showed Mr. Martinez being transferred to the jail from a van.

When he refused to go, officers cuffed and placed him in the holding cage. While in the cage, he became agitated and went after the officers with a plastic chair and cut one of them with a razor blade, the video shows. Two other officers were called for help. After locking Mr. Martinez in the holding cell through spontaneous use of force, he became compliant and the Strategic Operations Group called the nursing staff. The nurses checked on him in the Disciplinary Detention Unit, an isolated cell, where he stayed for a day.

Ms. Keefe is working to get the support of the secretary of public safety and the Department of Correction as she prepares to refile the legislation in the next session.

“When people are treated with dignity they tend to do the right thing,” she said.

“This issue is not necessarily a Worcester County House of Corrections issue alone. The Harm Reduction and Drug Reform Caucus of the Legislature visited a number of Massachusetts prisons and Houses of Correction over the past three or four years and we talked to numerous ex-prisoners who had been extracted or witnessed cell extractions as well,” she said.

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