Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dep’t of Corrections doesn’t like the sun

On a particularly sunny day in Boston, we spent the morning in court where the Massachusetts Department of Corrections argued to a panel of judges that documents about how the maximum security prison is run should never see the light of day. We were in the state Court of Appeals, as part of an ongoing lawsuit that we are bringing on behalf of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services – the organization charged by the state to advocate on behalf of prisoners.

This case stems from DOC’s decision to re-arrange its prisons, housing all maximum-security prisoners in the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. In November 2008, as DOC rolled out their new plan, MCLS began receiving calls and letters about increased violence. Apparently, in order to make room for the increase in population, DOC had converted small single cells into doubles by adding a second bed above the first one. The situation soon turned violent. Prisoners were fighting with each other and DOC was using teams of guards to force prisoners into doubled cells. Even the guards’ union weighed in against the move because it put guards at risk.

As our cooperating attorney, Scott Lewis of Anderson & Krieger, explained today in court, MCLS raised the prisoners’ concerns to DOC and its response was that they had a scientific, research-based method of deciding how to pair cellmates, but they could not let MCLS see most of it. In essence, DOC said “trust us, but we can’t show you how we’re doing this.”

We filed suit because we believe that MCLS, as advocates for prisoners, as well as the public at large, have a right to know how our government runs prisons. A lower court judge ruled in our favor last May, finding that the documents we were requesting were public and should be released. DOC appealed and to this day refuses to release most of the documents showing how they are carrying out the double-bunking.

The running of prisons is one of the most secretive businesses our government engages in. But just because they can shut the prison doors doesn’t mean they get to work in complete secrecy.

It’s important for the public to know whether DOC is doing everything it can to ensure that the prisons are safe. Our public records laws were written with just that purpose in mind. As Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

We will continue to fight this case because we believe not just that human beings have rights even when they are in prison, but because we also believe in an open and transparent government that is accountable to the people.

Contributed by ACLU of Massachusetts Staff Attorney Laura Rotolo

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