Updated at 4:38 p.m. Nov. 3
Two former inmates at the only women’s prison in the state, Massachusetts Correctional Institution Framingham, filed a lawsuit Monday alleging sexual abuse by former guard Melvis Romero. Other defendants include the state Department of Correction, healthcare provider Wellpath and several employees of MCI Framingham.
The plaintiffs claim that over a period of six months from September 2019 to March 2020, Romero would routinely isolate them, and lead them to an empty utility closet, where he would abuse them. Both plaintiffs also allege a quid pro quo nature of abuse; that in exchange for sexual acts, Romero would grant them preferential treatment including privileges or disciplinary leniency.
The lawsuit also alleges that prison leadership and employees were aware of the sexual abuse, and failed to “train, supervise, detect and investigate” Romero during the time of the alleged crimes.
Among the named defendants are Department of Corrections Commissioner Carol Mici, Superintendent Suzanne Thibault and Superintendent Kristie Ladouceur.
When the state incarcerates an individual they assume the responsibility of their health and safety and to protect them from instances of sexual abuse, and also ensure that they receive adequate care,” said Connie Tran, a criminal defense lawyer and former public defender who is representing the plaintiffs. Prison officials need to “prevent more harm done to people, not just physically, but also psychologically, as they come out of these prison settings and into our community,” she said.
Supervision of prison guards was a shambolic affair, the lawsuit says, and Romero was often left alone. Tran says she obtained unit logs totalling a period of four months that serve as records of interactions among guards, their supervisors and inmates. A review of these logs shows guards signing in and out, noting when other supervisors enter the room, and tracking routine duties. But the logs recording Romero’s shifts stood out because they showed him on duty alone.
Many DOC rules concerning prison safety and security are not publicly available, and this includes the question of whether or not a guard is allowed to be left alone with inmates for an extended period of time. The logs in this case show Romero was left alone, self-supervising, for every one of his 11:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. shifts — the only guard where that was the case.
“If there was a rule then it was broken,” explained Zachary Lown, who is representing the plaintiffs alongside Tran. “If there wasn’t a rule then that shows a disregard for what could be sexual assault for a vulnerable group of women.”
“This is also something that we think is a problem at MCI Framingham,” said Tran. “Having one person be accountable to himself, in charge of several women; that essentially encapsulates our claims around the security failures.”
GBH News' attempts to reach Romero were unsuccessful. A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said it had not yet seen the complaint, and that the department does not comment on pending litigation.
Sarah Nawab, an attorney with Prisoners Legal Services, and the director of its Women's Incarceration Conditions and Reentry Project, does not find the allegations in the lawsuit surprising. “Certainly the details and allegations in this lawsuit are not news to us,” she said. “Over the summer, we published a report detailing the experiences of women incarcerated throughout Massachusetts, and the overwhelming majority of women inside that we spoke to confirmed that they had either experienced or witnessed staff sexual misconduct.”
The report, which documented the experiences of incarcerated women in the State, provided several proposed solutions to the issues affecting these prisons. Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts Executive Director Lizz Matos said, “We hope what comes out of this is not just some accountability for the individuals who were alleged to be involved, but that there are some real thought that goes into trying to prevent this from happening again and addressing it as a systemic issue.”
The lawsuit says that as a result of their mistreatment, both plaintiffs have attempted self harm, and Tran says they are dealing with chronic anxiety, depression, and a distrust of authority figures. Still, she lauds their bravery. “What they are doing with the understanding of the potential retaliation against them, they really do know what they're risking,” said Tran. “But what they have said to me over and over again is, ‘we do not want another woman to have to go through what we went through.’”
Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Zachary Lown's last name.