On a winter evening around 11 pm, the former superintendent of Old Colony Correctional Center walked into a Rhode Island restaurant with a gun in his pocket.
Paul Murphy made his way through the dining room to the table where his recently estranged wife, Joan, was sitting with some friends. He sat down at the table and pointed the gun at her face. "I love you," he said. Then he squeezed the trigger. He shot his wife in the hand and neck, injuries she would survive. Murphy, a man who had overseen a prison of 750 souls, then turned the gun on himself and ended his own life.
The shooting, this past January 17, was senseless. But it was not unprecipitated.
The system that sustained Murphy — allowing a future killer to run a Massachusetts prison — is a microcosm of public penitentiaries nationwide. It's symbolic of a culture that often wreaks as much havoc on the families of prison personnel as it does on convicts and their relatives. But Old Colony, the prison Murphy ran, is particularly problematic, troubled by allegations of racism, sexual misconduct, and egregious human-rights violations.
An investigation by the Phoenix reveals that OCCC, located 30 miles south of Boston, appears to be especially toxic. The Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) supervises more than 10,000 convicted criminals in 21 facilities. Within that system, despite its chronic failures, the medium-security OCCC has for years been overshadowed by problems at maximum-security state prisons in Walpole and Shirley, according to Leslie Walker of the Downtown Crossing–based Prisoners' Legal Services (PLS).
But now Old Colony is in the spotlight, for all the wrong reasons. In November 2008, 25-year DOC veteran and OCCC Lieutenant Gary Mendes was accused of stealing more than $100,000 from the department. The following year, convicted rapist Manson Brown escaped from OCCC's adjoining minimum-security facility, setting off a nationwide manhunt that lasted 37 days and catalyzed legislative action. And this past March, a lawsuit was brought against WHDH-TV (Channel 7) and the Boston Herald by the girlfriend of a prisoner. The woman charges that those media outlets knowingly slandered her with false information that was allegedly leaked by OCCC staff members as apparent retribution against her boyfriend, an activist inmate who had called for outside authorities to investigate the prison.
Those are just some bombshells signaling trouble over Bridgewater. In the past year, several elected officials and DOC Commissioner Harold Clarke have visited OCCC to address problems between Caucasian officers and minority inmates. Concurrently, at least two female employees were escorted off the grounds after being caught having sex with convicts. In a state where convicts reportedly kill themselves at more than three times the national rate, in 2010 OCCC is the facility where prisoners are most likely to commit suicide. Attorneys for a recently deceased prisoner who hung himself there say the inmate complained up until his death about being denied his anti-psychotic drug regimen as retribution.