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It's discouraging that conditions may have worsened in state prisons since the Phoenix published "Troubled Over Bridgewater" in September. Our investigation highlighted egregious systemwide failures, specifically turmoil at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, where reform advocates continue to express concerns about overcrowding, an alarming suicide rate, and apparent patterns of prisoner abuse.

Yet the climate in Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) facilities appears to be increasingly volatile, as more incidents involving physical and sexual misconduct are reported, and as sudden executive vacancies cause institutional uncertainty. On October 8, Commissioner Harold Clarke resigned after just three years to take a job running Virginia prisons. Now, longtime DOC official James Bender is retiring (he reportedly made the decision before Clarke's announcement). It is widely believed that Bender, a former acting commissioner who most recently served as a deputy commissioner, played decision-maker to Clarke's figurehead.

"I am very sorry that Jim Bender is retiring," says Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services. "I'd hoped he would consider the commissioner's job. He's been very committed to rooting out inappropriate staff [and] to improving a detailed reporting system where prisoners felt like they had a fair shake."

Under the current circumstances, activists, ACLU attorneys, and some lawmakers say, there is an ever-urgent need for independent DOC oversight. In an impassioned Bay State Banner op-ed this week, faith-community leaders pleaded for such measures, which were recommended by a 2004 commission chaired by then–attorney general Scott Harshbarger. A House bill that would force Governor Deval Patrick to convene such an entity has been in limbo since before the Romney administration, but supporters are reinvigorated in their push for transparency.

"I think that, because of the recent suicides, there is now more interest in having a criminal-justice committee," says Newton State Representative Kay Khan, who sponsored the House bill. "Over the years, few people [on Beacon Hill] have been tremendously enthusiastic about this, but I've been speaking with the [Patrick] administration about the bill, and it's something that they're not absolutely opposed to, so I plan to continue having discussions."

Patrick spokespeople did not respond to specific Phoenix inquiries, but Mary Beth Heffernan, secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, wrote in an e-mail: "Since his appointment in 2007, [Commissioner Clarke] has led the DOC with a focus on increasing public safety by increasing efficiencies and implementing successful re-entry programs . . . We are committed to continuing this good work and have a strong team in place to ensure a seamless transition."

Reform advocates hardly echo those sentiments. Instead, they point to stagnant recidivism rates and a financially crippling union contract — signed by Governor Patrick — that makes DOC officers the third-highest paid in the country while resources for prisoners' mental-health care and job training dwindle. "Certainly, this is not one of the governor's priorities," says Walker.

"Why did you come here and promise reform?" Darrell Jones, an MCI-Norfolk inmate and reform organizer, recently asked of Clarke in an open letter. "Is this the only state that can't be reformed? . . . Who takes control now? . . . What about all the kids who come out of here and go back to our community and do the killings because they were already coming out of your facilities depressed, hopeless, and angry? The present ideas have not worked; kids are still dying."

Related: Troubled Over Bridgewater, A prison obituary: the tragedy of Victor Valdez, Ready to rumble, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Massachusetts, Harold Clarke, Prison,  More more >
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