Walpole State Prison: An Exercise in Torture

June 1, 1981

[Introduction written in 2006 in preparation for posting.]

This following report was submitted to Amnesty International (AI), International Secretariat, London, England by Massachusetts State Senator Jack Backman (D-Brookline). and Rose Viviano, Director, Families and Friends of Prisoners, Inc., Dorchester, Massachusetts.

In 1980-82, I served as a legislative aide for Senator Backman, Chair of the Massachusetts Legislative Committee On Human Services. My assignment included handling all issues, complaints and proposed legislation relating to prisons, mental health, and veterans.

Half of prison complaints originated from Walpole State Prison, which later changed its name to Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) Cedar Junction at Walpole. I spent time virtually every week for a year investigating hundreds of prison brutality complaints, including several homicides. I documented the pattern of torture and summarized it in the cover letter below, signed by Backman and Viviano.

Sending the report to Amnesty International was thought necessary due to there being virtually no response from then-Governor Edward J. King, or his Corrections Commissioner, Michael V. Fair. AI was not considered by the authors of this report to be a body that seriously examined patterns of human rights abuse in the United States in relationship to other countries considered (rightly or wrongly) to possess more severe abuse patterns. Nonetheless, we did not know at the time where else to distribute this shocking report of torture other than to community groups in the Massachusetts and New England region.

Amnesty International’s 1982 Report included the following brief item in response to our report identifying a pattern of systematic use of torture in Massachusetts: "On 21 August [1981] Amnesty International wrote to Governor Edward J. King of Massachusetts about allegations that prisoners in the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Walpole had been ill-treated over a period of several years. On 6 March prisoners were allegedly clubbed, beaten, kicked and tear-gassed at close range. In his reply of 18 September Governor King stated that: ‘any allegation of wrongdoing, in any state correctional facility, is immediately investigated by the Commissioner of Corrections.’ Regarding the incident at Walpole he stated: ‘full reports and videotapes have been forwarded to the Attorney General and District Attorney. Should they discover any wrongdoing, appropriate remedial action will be taken. To date, no discovery or opinion has come forth.’"

Note that AI does not mention "torture," but "ill-treatment," a term that carries no specific treaty or statutory definitions. In the Spring of 1981 I received a series of phone calls in the middle of the night warning me to lay off my investigations at Walpole. The callers, of course, never identified themselves but I speculated they were initiated or prompted by prison guard union representatives who feared consequences from anticipated conclusions in the investigative report I was likely to prepare. Certainly there was guard behavior that amounted to assault and battery, conspiracy to harm and injure, and homicide. Since neither state executive officials, nor members of the Massachusetts legislature of which Senator Backman was a distinguished member, took any action in response to our report, no known remedial action against guards or their superiors, or any other employee of the state, was ever taken.

Shortly after completion of the report in early June 1981, I took a temporary leave of absence as a personal safety precaution.

 


LETTER TO AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL
June 9, 1981

This letter with attached appendices attempts to document a clear pattern and history of systematic torture at the Massachusetts "Correctional" institution at Walpole. It will also detail the practice of shipping prisoners out to facilities within other states and the Federal government located hundreds, even thousands, of miles away, i.e., exiling those who it appears have created the most "political" problems for prison officials.

It should be noted here that these practices, especially torture, have been utilized for years, long before the most recent complaints about prison overcrowding. Formal complaints about Walpole practices for many years have been and continue to be addressed to numerous executive officials but the pattern goes on and on. We additionally seek now to highlight this pattern of abuse beyond the borders of Massachusetts. We hope that this information will be considered useful to your organization in seriously considering an investigation into both the practices of torture at and exile from Walpole prison.

Walpole is the maximum security prison for the state of Massachusetts. There are currently about 680 men imprisoned there in 13 cellblocks. Block 10 (and its various annexes) comprises the notorious Departmental Segregation Unit (DSU) where many, but by no means all, of the allegations of torture and abuse of prisoners by guards originate. As one could guess, Block 10 is where prisoners are house for various periods of time, sometimes for years, because the administration has determined that these people have acted in a manner threatening to the order of Walpole or other state prisons. Their placement therein, however, is not just for the protection of other staff or prisoners. They are sent there for punishment.

Examination of the process by which men are sent to Block 10 reveals that some have investigations pending and others have been found by the institutional disciplinary board to have violated prison rules or criminal laws. In fact, the behavior of some of the men prior to their transfer to Block 10 could be characterized by participation as leaders in nonviolent protests of prison conditions, of racist and vindictive staff attitudes, and of abusive behavior on the part of guards. These protests have been in the form of hunger strikes, work stoppages, peaceful demonstrations and silence. Since Walpole is operated significantly through the promotion by the administration of inmate informants, much of the evidence used by officials to isolate men in Block 10 is based on unchallenged, anonymous informant tips.

Once in Block 10 or its annexes, the behavioral modification milieu imposed by officials becomes incredulous. The men start in the lower-left tier where there is extreme deprivation of "privileges" and comfort, and imposition of various harassment and punitive techniques. The men frequently counter with hunger strikes, silence or refusal to leave their cells when requested to comply with arbitrarily imposed rectal searches. When they attempt to discuss their plight and general conditions with prison officials, media, public officials and community groups, they are frequently treated to increased punitive responses by officials. Some write legal writs which tends to bring further punishment.

The punishing behavior of the guards, as alleged voluminously by prisoners, could be described in four categories: withholding of fundamental rights or privileges, imposition of hazards, physical beatings and intentional psychological abuse.

 

Withholding of Fundamental Rights of "Privileges"

Visitation with family; access to law library; possession of cosmetic items (including toilet paper); availability of water, heat, lights; access to healthy diet; availability of television; provision of clothes, beds and bedding and winter coats; provisions of writing materials and postage; access to medication and medical attention; access to incoming mail; provision of indoor and outdoor exercise; access to showers; among others.

Imposition of Hazards

Flooding cells; placing or allowing bugs and foreign matter into food; igniting clothes and bedding; destruction of personal property (including legal materials);
provision of too much or too little heat; arbitrary rectal searches; needless spraying of mace and tear gas; among others.

Physical Beatings

Consistent reports of physical abuse including, but not limited to, guards’ responses to refusals to comply with arbitrary rectal searches as well as prisoners’ participation in protests through hunger strikes, letters of complaint to media and public officials and filing litigation.

Intentional Psychological Abuse

Arbitrary shakedowns of cells; empty announcements of the presence of a visitor (later to be told that it was a joke); announcement of death threats; guards stating that they are having sexual relations with wives, mothers and girlfriends of prisoners; ordering the prisoners to lie face down before receiving food, legal material or other needs; among others.

The ultimate terror and controlling tactic at Walpole is the threat of shipment to a federal prison, hundreds, even as much as three thousand miles distant. Such exile effective stops the receipt of visits from loved ones and precludes any relationship with positive community resources, especially i preparation for parole and the ultimate return to such community. In 1980, there were 16 prisoners shipped to the federal prison system and at least 3 other prisoners were transferred to state prisons within other New England states. As of January, 1981, according to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, there were 30 state prisoners in various federal institutions and approximately 42 in other New England states. The Department indicated in March their imminent intentions of transferring 20 more men, and in fact shipped three more in early May, 1981. Such exile policy also effectively diminishes or denies prisoners’ access to their attorneys and the courts as well as to legislative overseers and policymakers. Senator Backman has filed a bill this legislative season that, if passed into law, would prohibit any further use of exile policy into the federal system with the exception of the one federal facility located in New England.

The 5 appendices spell out the various evidentiary details supporting these allegations of torture and exile policy.

APPENDIX A describes a 4-year chronology of torture compiled by Senator Jack Backman’s office and a separate brief history of Walpole prison.

APPENDIX B identifies a number of very recent incidents of torture from Senator Backman’s files as well as excerpts from prisoners’ letters and actual disciplinary reports that reveal the cruelties of Walpole’s policies and practices.

APPENDIX C presents the "official" technique of Unit Management and a prisoner’s description of that behavioral modification technique employed at Walpole.

APPENDIX D documents the Department’s incredulous use of shipout/exile and its terrifying effects on prisoners and their families, and its effective blockage of the exercise of a number of constitutional rights.

APPENDIX E is comprised of a few selected photographs of block 10.

We are not necessarily claiming that Walpole poses a completely unique picture of torture and exile policy different from many of the other 7,000-plus American prisons and jails. We suspect that many of America’s heavily secure prisons impose similar routines of systematic torture. We do know that most states are now shipping some of their "undesirable management problems" to the federal prison system. But we do feel that we have enough evidence, just by its weight, to have revealed a factual, tragic pattern of torture and brutality at Walpole prison, topped off by the threat of exile. The latter procedure was banned in Anglo-Saxon legal tradition in 1679 with the passage of the English Habeas Corpus Act.

If Amnesty International determines that an investigation is appropriate and such inquiry proves substantial truth to the allegations, we would hope that you would be able to make comparisons with the prison practices of torture and exile of other countries of the world. We would also urge you to denounce these practices as inhumane and barbaric and plea for substantial corrective action.

If you have any further questions or feel the need for additional information, please feel free to contact us.


8 Comments

  1. Jose
    Posted February 9, 2018 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    I was there for 2years @15 suicides

  2. James Chenevert
    Posted March 20, 2018 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    I was an inmate at MCI-Walpole from September 1980 – April 1982…4 months in 10 Block…the nightmares have never ceased…

  3. James Chenevert
    Posted March 20, 2018 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Walpole was just another stop in a long traumatic story that begins in the Chauncey Cottage at the Lyman School for Boys in 1971…DYS…Oakdale, Worcester, Roslindale, Westfield…Penekese Island…it’s amazing I am still alive and cogent…

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