Shirley prison chief removed
The superintendent of the state’s main maximum-security prison was ousted this month, after less than a year in the post, state officials said Monday.
Anthony Mendonsa, who began working as a correctional program officer in 1978 and rose through the prison ranks until being appointed superintendent of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in November, was removed from his position June 8, state officials said.
“Superintendents like Mr. Mendonsa serve at the pleasure of the commissioner,” Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety, said in a statement. “The commissioner received information that led to Mendonsa being detached with pay pending an investigation. After that, he was removed and is retiring June 30, 2012.”
Harris said Luis S. Spencer, commissioner of the Department of Correction, would not respond to questions about what led to removal of Mendonsa, calling it a personnel matter.
State officials and prisoner advocates who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the case said that Mendonsa was removed because of allegations he sexually harassed a female staff member.
Mendonsa — who last year earned $105,237, according to state records — did not respond to messages.
Osvaldo Vidal has taken over as the prison’s acting superintendent, a position in which he will oversee nearly 1,400 inmates and a staff of about 500 correction officers and administrators, said Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Correction.
Souza-Baranowski, which sprawls across 18 acres of land in Shirley, opened in 1998 and is the state’s newest and most secure correctional facility. The high-tech prison is controlled by a keyless security system that remotely opens and closes 1,705 doors.
However, over the years, inmates have complained about crowding and have repeatedly erupted in violence, even assaulting three of the prison’s superintendents.
In 2009, when the state added a second bunk to cells for hundreds of Souza-Baranowski inmates, assaults on staff and inmates jumped nearly 50 percent from the previous year, requiring the use of force by correction officers 377 times and accounting for a third of all assaults in the prison system.
In an interview last year, the prison’s previous superintendent, Thomas Dickhaut, who was stabbed in the face by an inmate in 2009, said tensions had subsided to some extent. But last June, there had already been enough unruly inmate behavior to require the use of force 177 times in the first six months of 2011.
Between three and five emergency warnings were announced over the prison’s public address system every day, most for fights, he said.
“It’s a very difficult inmate population,” Dickhaut said at the time.
About 1 in 5 state prisoners are serving their sentences in maximum-security prisons, the vast majority ending up at Souza-Baranowski, named for two officers killed at MCI-Norfolk during an attempted prisoner escape in 1972.
In 2010, there were 43 incidents at Souza-Baranowski involving an inmate assaulting a staff member, three of which caused a serious injury, and 97 cases of an inmate assaulting another inmate, 25 of which caused a serious injury.
“Massachusetts prisons are grossly overcrowded and at a breaking point,” said Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. “Idleness and violence reign. If any prison in Massachusetts needs a leader who is fair, wise, and respectful to both prisoners and staff, it is this facility.”
Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.