The reform-proof prison

Why Massachusetts' correctional system hasn't gotten any better
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  September 8, 2010

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In March 2004, Kathleen Dennehy was hired as the new Department of Correction (DOC) commissioner. The first woman ever to hold the job, she had served nearly 30 years in the system, working as a deputy commissioner and before that as superintendent of the women's prison in Framingham. The challenges before Dennehy were grave; in August 2003, defrocked Catholic priest and serial child rapist John Geoghan was strangled to death by a white supremacist in his cell at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, casting a negative light on the department.

In response to the subsequent uproar, then-governor Mitt Romney and his secretary of public safety, Ed Flynn, tapped Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger to head an investigatory panel, the Governor's Commission on Corrections Reform (GCCR). The final Harshbarger report concluded that Geoghan had been severely harassed at Walpole, where the priest was initially held, and that at Shirley, Geoghan had landed in a vulnerable cell block as a result of officers citing him for unwarranted disciplinary infractions.

The Harshbarger report was ugly, and over the next three years, the DOC's Office of Investigative Services struck officers with 312 charges of misconduct, resulting in the firing of more than 100 guards across the department. Seventy-three officers were found guilty of illegally assaulting convicts, and 98 were found to have participated in illicit sexual misconduct with prisoners. The report also proposed strategies for purging the DOC of rogue guards deemed unwilling to accept the department's heightened standards. The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union (MCOFU) fought hard against the DOC's crusade, directing much of its spite at the woman who Romney chose to spearhead the invigorated state prison reform effort.

From the beginning of her tenure as commissioner, Dennehy clashed with union loyalists intent on maintaining the status quo. Reps from the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union (MCOFU) declined to show up at initial meetings to draft a new department vision statement, and, five months after Dennehy's start, officers hit her with a vote of no confidence. But in the years that followed, until Governor Patrick replaced her with Harold Clarke in 2007, it got worse: Dennehy reported that her car tires were slashed during one prison visit; union members followed her with an inflatable rat and hired private investigators to pursue her; and an underground officer newsletter caricatured the commissioner performing oral sex.

READ: "Troubled Over Bridgewater," by Chris Faraone
It's no surprise that Dennehy locked ideological horns with the union. MCOFU's then-president Steve Kenneway had just completed a tour in Iraq, where he served at Abu Ghraib as an Army reservist. When the notorious Baghdad prison came under scrutiny for outrageous human-rights violations that were exposed in a series of incriminating pictures, Kenneway publicly defended his military comrades, stating that he never witnessed a single inappropriate interrogation. Dennehy, on the other hand, was tasked in to lead the biggest Massachusetts jail reform initiative in 40 years.

One proposed change that was met with vitriol by union members pertained to system-wide disciplinary and grievance processes. Historically, convict complaints had little chance of reaching DOC administrators beyond prison walls, as each facility operated as its own fiefdom in which investigations of prisoner abuse were discreetly addressed or completely ignored. Dennehy sought increased accountability, not only in how grievances were handled, but for officers who abused their power. Only third party DOC administrators, she believed, could admonish rogue officers.

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