Governor sets review of prisons
Governor Mitt Romney launched a "top to bottom review" of the state correction system yesterday, saying that initial inquiries into the prison slaying of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan had uncovered systemic problems.
Romney named former state attorney general Scott Harshbarger to head a 15-member panel with a broad mandate to investigate correction issues, including internal prison investigations, prisoner discipline, and classification of inmates by the level of security threat they pose.
The governor said he was acting on the recommendation of a three-member panel established Aug. 25 to investigate lapses that allowed a fellow inmate to strangle Geoghan while both were in protective custody at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley.
That panel -- made up of a State Police major, a top Department of Correction official, and a private correction consultant whose company has worked in Massachusetts prisons -- had come under fire from legislators and prisoners' advocates. Those critics called the committee too closely tied to the correction system to objectively weigh allegations that prison guards' abuse of Geoghan led to his transfer to the higher-security prison where he was killed.
But Public Safety Secretary Edward A. Flynn said the smaller panel had done its job by identifying problems in the prison system that were beyond the scope of its probe into the specific circumstances of Geoghan's death.
"There has been some criticism regarding the objectivity of this investigation," Flynn said yesterday, standing beside Romney and Harshbarger as the governor announced formation of the volunteer commission at a State House press conference. "I hope these preliminary findings are accepted as evidence to the contrary."
Flynn said the new panel would scrutinize the conduct of guards. He declined to detail what problems the three-member panel found, saying only that they involved issues including prisoners' civil rights and guards' safety.
"There are some systemic operations at the Department of Correction" that need improving, he said.
Although Romney said the original panel's preliminary findings are confidential, one person with knowledge of the probe said that investigators are examining guard personnel records and prisoner disciplinary records.
Correction Commissioner Michael T. Maloney learned of the new panel for the first time yesterday morning, Flynn said. Asked if Maloney's job was safe, Flynn said: "Anybody in that position is going to be faced with situations beyond their control. What we want to ascertain is what was beyond his control and what was within his control."
After the press conference, Maloney said through Justin Latini, the Department of Correction spokesman, that he was "willing to fully cooperate with the panel and whatever needs to be done."
Several state legislators welcomed the new panel, even as some wondered if Romney had acted in part to preempt the Legislature's Joint Committee on Public Safety, which is to open hearings on the prison system Oct. 28.
"I think everybody's been dragging their feet," said Representative Kay Khan, Democrat of Newton and one of six legislators who called for a broader panel in a Sept. 10 letter to Romney. They say they have received no response.
Representative Timothy J. Toomey Jr., Democrat of Cambridge and cochairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety, called the new panel long overdue, but added: "Who took the lead is not important. What's important is that we're going to do the review."
Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, Democrat of Cambridge and cochairman of the committee, thanked the governor for listening to legislators and the public, but said he still awaits the administration's explanations on specific lapses.
Prisoner advocates praised the panel, which includes criminal justice specialists, a defense lawyer, and community leaders, as well as current and former correction officials.
John Reinstein of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said the panel's diverse makeup would make it more likely to tackle the deeper problems of the prison system, but he cautioned that the appointees will need sufficient staff and funding, which was not addressed at yesterday's news conference.
Harshbarger -- a Democrat and former president of Common Cause, a group that promotes ethics in politics -- vowed to address wide-ranging public concerns about the prison system.
"This is a great opportunity to look at a correctional system that has really not been examined in detail in over a decade or more in Massachusetts," said Harshbarger, now a lawyer at Murphy, Hesse, Toomey, and Lehane.
The panel's work is expected to take about six months and will be conducted in an open fashion, he said.
Public concern over the prison system has been rising. Earlier this week, a sex offender escaped from the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater and was recaptured. Earlier this month, Paul R. Nolin, a convicted child rapist, was charged with murdering 20-year-old Jonathan Wessner of Falmouth. Nolin was not listed on Falmouth's sex offender registry because correction officials had not classified his danger level, more than a year after his release. On Thursday, more than two dozen state prison inmates filed a lawsuit against the Department of Correction and several prison officials and guards, contending that the inmates had been assaulted during a shakedown at another prison in Shirley.
Romney did not address those cases, but made clear that the panel would have a broad scope.
"A separate, comprehensive review, not of the Geoghan murder, but of the operations of the Department of Correction is warranted," he said.
Geoghan's death Aug. 23 added a new chapter to the clergy sexual abuse scandal, which began in part with allegations that he had abused nearly 150 children, mostly boys. He was serving a nine- to 10-year sentence for molesting a 10-year-old boy.
His lawyers have said he was abused and harassed by guards at the medium-security Concord state prison and was moved to Souza-Baranowski in part because of the abuse. They have asked how the 68-year-old former priest could have been housed next to his accused killer, Joseph L. Druce, a convicted murderer with a professed hatred of child molesters.
In a letter faxed to the Globe yesterday, via a woman in California who said she and Druce are pen pals, Druce said he is "fully ready to talk" to the state officials investigating Geoghan's death.
Romney said a number of state officials "were very troubled by the murder of John Geoghan and wondered how our prison system had failed to protect him, as well as a number of our other citizens," he said.
Shortly after Geoghan's death, Flynn named the three-member panel, which includes chairman Mark Delaney, a State Police major; Mark Reilly, chief investigator for the Department of Correction; and George Camp, a prison consultant and executive director of a group that represents the nation's prison officials.
In response to critics who called it "an internal investigation," David Shaw, then a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety, said the panel would be expanded.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
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