Troubled Over Bridgewater

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  September 13, 2010

According to documents obtained by the Phoenix and interviews done with prisoners, problems between convicts and OCCC officers have escalated in the midst of what appears to be chronic institutional dysfunction. Visits from top lawmakers including Governor Deval Patrick have failed to stem what activists allege is systemic abuse of black and Latino prisoners, who comprise 54 percent of the center's population. Among the allegations: officers intentionally disrespect such religious and cultural items as Korans; concerted efforts are made to suppress educational opportunities for minority prisoners; and physical and institutional retribution is carried out against convicts who file grievances. A group of black prisoners at OCCC who organize as the African Heritage Coalition (AHC) say they have been especially targeted. Internal reports show that this past winter officers cancelled a long-planned Kwanzaa celebration on false premises; inmate advocates perceive this as a dangerous symbolic gesture.

This all comes at a time when tensions between officers and administrators are particularly high due to department-wide overcrowding, and when severe financial restraints are causing further problems. For the first quarter of 2010, the Mass DOC operated at 141 percent of its designated capacity, exceeding the intended average daily statewide population by more than 3000 prisoners. OCCC currently holds about 755 convicts — nearly 300 more than the facility was designed for. In 2009, the state could not afford to pay Bridgewater an annual $187,000 prison mitigation payment that the town uses to protect itself in the event of a jailbreak. In July, the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union (MCOFU) sued the DOC for overcrowding, alleging that the department is illegally and irresponsibly double-bunking convicts at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley. The case was dismissed because the union could not prove administrative guilt, but overcrowding at commonwealth facilities remains an ongoing worry: it's the rare issue that officers and progressive prison abolitionists mostly agree on.

Past and current inmates, former administrators, officers, and numerous reformers say that OCCC conditions will only worsen, as the Mass DOC is in the process of transferring the state's most psychotic patient-prisoners to Bridgewater. That transition, begun in 2008, is intended as a cost-cutting measure, since concentrating special-needs convicts in one prison would allow the department to close costly psychological wards in penitentiaries statewide. In theory, human-rights crusaders, including those at the Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition, would support a plan to house mentally ill patients in a central institution. But they are concerned that, considering a slew of recent episodes, OCCC is not prepared for such an adjustment. As proof they point to the two suicides that have already taken place there this year — one of which occurred inside a mental-health unit.

"It does not appear that the facility is prepared to become a mental-health prison," says Walker, of PLS, who "has received a very high volume of complaints about OCCC staff who do not have the training of temperament to work with these challenging prisoners.

"The misery level for mentally ill prisoners at OCCC," she adds, "is very high right now."

Even before the DOC began transferring its most unglued convicts there, observers say OCCC was already, in many ways, the most out-of-control prison in all of Massachusetts.

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