THE TOP OFFICIAL at the Department of Correction on Wednesday rescinded an internal memo issued earlier this week by one of her top deputies that would have initiated a moratorium on disciplinary actions against correctional officers and revoked any existing suspensions.
Carol Mici, the commissioner of the Department of Correction, sent a letter to her “extended leadership team” stating that the memo was unauthorized and “drafted and distributed without my knowledge or approval.” She stated emphatically that the agency’s disciplinary policy remains unchanged.
“As you know, the Department of Correction insists on the highest standards of professionalism, and the overwhelming majority of correction officers adhere to those standards every day,” Mici wrote. “We will continue to support these men and women who uphold our values even under difficult and dangerous circumstances, and we will continue to investigate and discipline conduct that does not comport with them.
The unauthorized internal memo was issued by Michael Grant, deputy commissioner of the Department of Correction, who was paid $152,469 in 2019. Grant’s memo, which appeared on the website of the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union on Tuesday, also was addressed to the “extended leadership team.”
The memo’s purpose was unclear, but it appeared to be designed to allow more correctional officers to return to work as state prisons grapple with the coronavirus outbreak. When asked about how the memo was acquired on Wednesday night, a union official denied even knowing about it, despite it being posted on the union’s website. The memo has now been removed with a “404” error message popping up.
The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union has been raising concerns about the safety of prisons amid the coronavirus outbreak and is seeking passage of legislation that would encourage officers to stay home if they feel sick by not requiring them to take sick time.
“We need to ensure that these staff members are taken care of and more importantly protect them from contaminating our prisons and co-workers,” said Kevin Flanagan, legislative representative of the union in a memo dated Monday. “We can all agree that an outbreak inside our prisons or jails would be catastrophic.”
Michael Cox, head of policy for Black and Pink, a LGBTQ prisoner rights organization, said he was relieved to see Mici “correct the misleading and alarming statements” that appeared to give prison guards “a blank check on discipline” and allow the return to prison facilities of correctional officers who have been disciplined. “These are the people least qualified to be handling a public health crisis for incarcerated people,” he said.
Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the memo from Grant was troubling, since it seemed as if the Department of Correction was limiting scrutiny of its own staff amid ongoing allegations of abuse and brutality by corrections officers at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins tweeted a copy of Grant’s proposed moratorium on disciplinary actions, calling it a “decline to prosecute list” for correction officers.
“As the rest of the world is looking at ways to get non-violent people OUT of jails and prisons, our @MACorrections is bulking up its staff with its disgraced, previously disciplined, & suspended guards,” Rollins tweeted.
The coronavirus crisis is spurring calls by advocates that prisoners be treated more humanely and released in some instances. A coalition of prison advocacy groups led by Families for Justice as Healing has asked Gov. Charlie Baker to release as many people as possible from jails and prisons and stop the flow of people into jails and prisons in order to stem the spread of COVID-19. The groups say prisons aren’t currently following Baker’s March 15 emergency order that prohibits gatherings of more than 25 people.
“Locked-down facilities have incredibly high infection rates, especially jails due to the transitory nature of the population,” the group wrote in its letter to Baker. “Incarcerated people do not have adequate access to medical care, basic hygiene practices, and preventive health measures.”
Under state law, the governor can release people from pretrial detention, including people held on bail and those being held pending a hearing on an alleged violation of probation. He also has the right to release all people with six months or less left on their sentences in both county jails and prisons run by the Department of Correction. He can also grant clemency to prisoners who are older than 60 with significant health conditions, and extend furloughs up to 60 days.
During an afternoon briefing on the coronavirus, Baker said the call for releasing inmates was news to him. “You’re the first to bring this up,” he told a reporter. He also said he was not familiar with the memo issued by Grant.