Prisoner Justice

More than three years ago, I wrote a lengthy story about a large group of lawsuits being brought by former inmates at the Suffolk County House of Correction, alleging mistreatment by guards in the late 1990s under the administration of Sheriff Richard Rouse. The cases had been together as a class-action suit, which the county settled by agreeing to a number of reforms -- a development I had reported earlier. The individual lawsuits, however, would proceed, with each former inmate getting a chance to convince a jury that his civil rights were violated -- and that damages should be awarded.

It's been very slow going, with the cases crawling toward trial; in the two or three that have gotten to trial, either no violation was found or no damges were awarded.

Today, however, the Globe reports that one of those former inmates won a $900,000 award. That's an awful lot of money, and should put a huge scare into authorities who are on the hook for all the money that might be awarded to the dozens of others still awaiting trial. (The state and Boston's city government split the sheriff's costs, usually including court payments.) One telling detail: this case involved two correction officers -- Torres and Basile -- who show up in many of the complaints.

I wrote in that article:

[I]f juries do start awarding cash settlements in those trials, the Commonwealth will most likely step in and settle the remaining cases. Those involved in the litigation believe that the state is using the first handful of trials to test the mood of the juries. If the juries side with the inmates, expect the state to negotiate a group payment — without acknowledging any wrongdoing, or allowing the public to find out what really happened.

The department's approach has been to fight these cases vigorously, rather than acknowledge the sins of a past administration and offer some form of compensation. It may have been a smart strategy, for exactly the same reason that it is an injust strategy: justice delayed really is often justice denied, as the years go by, the costs pile up, and the defendants and their witnesses scatter.

Now that a case has been won -- and with such a large jury award -- the dynamic changes. The cost of settling the remaining suits goes way up; the incentive will be to cause further delays by appealling, rather than settling the remaining cases at this worst possible bargaining point. Meanwhile, the men who were so badly mistreated have already waited a decade for their justice.

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