Hampshire County has the most violent small jail in the state, and one of the least transparent
At the county lockup in Northampton, corrections officers have been involved in a number of violent altercations with inmates over the past two years. Yet unlike every other such facility in Massachusetts, administrators at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction choose not to film these encounters.
An analysis of written reports, obtained under the public records law, reveals at least two suspicious incidents in 2018 where corresponding video footage would be helpful to determine whether officers acted appropriately.
Sheriff Patrick Cahillane oversees the department’s Rocky Hill Road facility, home to an inmate population that hovers around 200. Around half of those inmates have some form of mental illness, according to public information officer Thomas Mitchell.
For its size, Hampshire County jail is one of the most violent in the state. Records obtained for this story show that in 2017, Hampshire County officers used pepper spray to subdue inmates on 13 separate occasions, exceeding the number of such incidents in Berkshire and Franklin counties combined, even though each of those two jails held around the same number of inmates as Hampshire County. In the same period their facility even had a higher rate of “chemical agent” use than Norfolk County, where jailers are responsible for twice as many inmates.
Following the controversial in-jail death of Sandra Bland in Texas in 2015, a growing number of state and local correctional facilities have sought to increase their transparency and accountability to the public. In 2017, the Wisconsin state legislature awarded $591,000 to its state prison system for the purchase of 200 body cameras.
Still, what happens inside these institutions is largely hidden from public view.
Despite the fact they have little effect on police behavior, body cams are increasingly embraced by departments in the US. Yet in correctional settings they are “very seldom used,” according to Kevin Murphy, executive director of the US Deputy Warden’s Association. In a 2016 Washington Post article, Murphy explained that most of the resistance to body cameras was “because of the expense involved.”
Which is not to say that there is no video recording going on inside jails and prisons. Fixed surveillance cameras capture the action in hallways and common areas, allowing officers to keep a watchful eye on inmates. Whenever jailers plan to use force against an inmate, the generally accepted standard in the corrections world is to assign an officer to record the action using a handheld camera. Massachusetts state prisons, as well as nearly all 13 county jails in the state, routinely film such encounters, which include cell extractions—a violent procedure in which officers wear protective gear to forcibly move an inmate from his cell to another part of the facility. The video recordings, which can be studied for training purposes, also enable jail administrators to protect themselves from lawsuits.
Last August, in response to a public records request, the Hampshire County sheriff’s office confirmed that cell extractions are not filmed in their facility. In response to a more detailed inquiry regarding its camera policies this year, spokesman Mitchell took a different approach, declining to answer any questions about what is or is not filmed in its jail.
If Hampshire County is in fact not filming cell extractions, that “would be notably outside the accepted practice in corrections,” according to Lauren Petit, staff attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts.
The lack of video evidence makes it difficult to account for exactly what happened during two unusual incidents in 2018. Like most dramatic accounts of staff use of force, they occurred in the Special Management Unit. According to Mitchell, the public information officer, the SMU is a 24-bed section of the jail where inmates undergo a regimen of “voluntary segregation,” designed to keep them “safe from themselves and other inmates who may pose a threat.”
Last February, SMU inmates got an early morning wakeup call when one of them, apparently enraged over having had property removed from his cell by an officer on an earlier shift, began loudly banging his desk against a cell wall. Responding officers failed to verbally deescalate the situation, so they pepper-sprayed and extracted the inmate from his cell. In accordance with department policy, the inmate was then transferred from his cell to a part of the facility where inmates are able to shower and “decontaminate” from the effects of the chemical agent. One officer’s written report describes a tense situation, describing the inmate as “uncooperative the entire way.” While in the shower, and despite being restrained on each side by a corrections officer, the report notes a curious turn of events: The inmate “banged his head off the wall several times causing a small laceration above his right eye.”
Per department protocol, an officer photographed this injury. In response to a public records inquiry, the Sheriff’s office claimed that these photographs are exempt from the public records law since the department lacks “technology capacity to reproduce the photos that you requested without disclosing the identity of the inmate which is CORI protected.”
On Sept 11, officers used similar language to describe an incident with a different inmate. Shortly after 10 o’clock in the evening, Sgt. Andrew Robidoux and Officer William Jackson responded to a disturbance in the SMU. This time, an inmate—whose name was redacted from reports released by the sheriff—had attracted the attention of officers by covering his cell window with a jail-issued towel. (Since it impedes an officer’s ability to check on inmates, any attempt to block the window is considered a serious offense in most correctional environments).
After pepper-spraying the inmate, Sgt. Robidoux noted in his report that he applied wrist restraints “firm to the skin but not to impede circulation,” in preparation for removing the inmate from his cell. “I doubled locked the wrist restraints for safety,” Sgt. Robidoux wrote, and “took control of [redacted]’s right arm and wrist” while Officer Jackson held the inmate’s other arm. Following protocol, the immobilized inmate was thus escorted from his cell to the shower area. But despite the restraints, Sgt. Robidoux’s report notes that as the trio were descending some stairs, the inmate managed to hit his head twice against a wall before officers were able to pull him away.
In response to questions about how an immobilized inmate could hit their head against a wall, Hampshire County sheriff’s counsel Charles Maguire said he made a personal visit to the jail to interview the officers involved in the two incidents. In a five-page statement dated March 1, Maguire sought to clarify what happened on February 8, 2018. He acknowledged that during the decontamination process the inmate was handcuffed and “stabilized” by two corrections officers, and noted that an “exceedingly narrow” shower, measuring little more than two-and-a-half feet wide, made it all too easy for the inmate to hit his head through a series of “rapid, repetitive and violent” movements.
In response to inquiries about the stairwell incident of September 11, 2018, Maguire pointed out that the inmate in question had “sustained no injuries whatsoever.” “What in particular do you find so difficult to understand?” Maguire wrote. “Under these circumstances is it reasonable to assume that other officers could have done better?”
The appearance of impropriety, together with the absence of video footage, does not sit well with Rahsaan Hall, an attorney who directs the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
“It is disturbing,” Hall said, “whenever there are questions surrounding the use of force in correctional institutions and there is a lack of transparency to try to get answers about what happened.”
While Hampshire County had no handheld camera footage to share, there were fixed security cameras in the facility. But those cameras, the sheriff’s counsel claimed, hold secrets too dangerous to divulge.
In response to a public records request for surveillance camera footage of the two incidents, Maguire deemed such media exempt from the state’s sunshine laws. The disclosure of such video recordings “could prove detrimental,” he explained, to the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office law enforcement efforts.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and the Shoestring in Northampton. If you want to see more reporting like this, you can donate to BINJ at givetobinj.org.