John Prince of DARE states,
"[the Dept. of Corrections grievance system is like a kangaroo courtroom...the grievance has to go through an officer who could be a friend of the officer you're complaining about. He could just "pocket" it. Grievances can take 20 days to reach a prison administrator and replies, usually denials, take another 20 days."
Recent allegations of an inmate being forced to taste his own feces is prompting activists to demand an independent investigation of prisoners' complaints. March 2, 2006 - local community action group, responding to recent allegations of guards abusing an inmate at the Adult Correctional Institutions, called yesterday for an outside investigation to determine the extent of physical abuse and violence in the state prison system.
Over the past five years, DARE and the Rhode Island Commission on Human Rights participated in a legislative study commission and collected 175 complaints from ACI prisoners, including 25 that alleged they had been physically and verbally abused, or denied medical treatment. One of the prisoners, DARE said, was forced by an officer to eat his own feces. This is the second time an allegation about eating feces has surfaced in the past month. Two weeks ago, ACI Director A.T. Wall suspended nine prison staff members over allegations that several of them "abused and seriously mistreated," an inmate in the ACI's minimum-security unit.
Last week, lawyers for the inmate, Michael Walsh, said that correctional officers forced Walsh to taste his own feces for smuggling cigarettes into the prison. Walsh, 30, who is serving a short sentence for a nonviolent crime, may sue the state. The state police and FBI are investigating the correctional officers for possible crimes and civil-rights violations. So far, no charges have been brought.
Yesterday, members of DARE, including a former ACI inmate and the mothers of two inmates, also called for an independent grievance procedure that will impartially investigate prisoner complaints. Bruce Reilly, who served nearly 12 years in the ACI for the 1992 killing of a Community College of Rhode Island professor, said that he had witnessed correctional officers break prisoners' jaws and damage their eye sockets for mouthing off. Reilly said prisoners are reluctant to speak out for fear of retribution. "It's so hard to bring a complaint," he said.
Rosalina Collazo said she has a son, Robert A. Collazo, in
the ACI's high-security unit for murder. She alleged that correctional officers
had twice broken her son's jaw and had dislocated a hand. She also said that she
has been prohibited from visiting him for months at a time. "These guards
have too much power," she said. "This abuse has been going on for too long."
The Rev. Evan Timbo, of Crossroads Covenant Church in Providence, said that just because someone is sentenced to prison, does not mean that they "should be treated like an animal." The public, he said, should be concerned about prisoner abuse.
Saturday, September 17, 2005 - The truth is what has the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers scared. On Aug. 30, the Brotherhood took out a full-page ad in The Journal imploring Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) to "tell the WHOLE truth." The Brotherhood has also run this ad in several of the state's free weekly papers. Telling the truth about what goes on at the Adult Correctional Institutions is exactly what DARE aims to do! The truth is that for the past five years DARE has received an average of 5 to 10 letters a week from ACI inmates chronicling a multitude of problems, from physical abuse to lack of mental-health services to little or no rehabilitative programming.
DARE believes that the ACI needs an independent, neutral process to fairly review and investigate prisoners' grievances, and that the prison would greatly benefit from the aid of outside oversight. In 2003, after hearing testimony from ex-prisoners and prisoners' families, state legislators voted to create a legislative commission to investigate conditions at the ACI and to determine if there was a need for independent oversight.
The commission met for nearly a year, and although the Brotherhood of Correctional Officers had a spot at the table, it never appointed a representative. Throughout the life of the commission, the Brotherhood and the administration did everything in their power to interfere with the commission's conducting a thorough investigation -- including forbidding commission members' entering the ACI to hold interviews with prisoners who had filed complaints. Yet despite correctional officers' tearing down postings of the address of the commission, in 10 days the commission received over 300 letters from ACI prisoners.
Although DARE is concerned with conditions in the prison and how prisoners are treated, more important, we hope to make people aware that Rhode Island spends an average of $35,000 annually to incarcerate a person at the ACI. These people are often incarcerated for minor, nonviolent offenses, and 51 percent of them return to prison within two years of their release. The money spent on many prisoners' incarceration would be better spent on positive programs, such as job training, education, and substance-abuse treatment. These approaches would be both more effective at addressing the causes of crime and less costly.
The punitive mindset of the criminal-justice system born of the War on Drugs has proven ineffective. If Rhode Island is interested in increasing public safety, our money needs to be invested in preventive measures, such as education, health care and affordable housing. There is a trend around the country to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences (a goal that DARE is working toward) and to seek alternative sentences and various forms of rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration. As states struggle with huge budget deficits, many of them have taken steps to reduce their spending on incarceration -- freeing up the dollars for beneficial social programs that strengthen communities. Every citizen in Rhode Island would greatly benefit if our state headed in the same direction. MIMI BUDNICK