The Boston Globe Boston Globe Online / City & Region
Sexual abuse in Suffolk prison

Pattern of misconduct raises questions about sheriff's leadership

By Francie Latour and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 5/23/2001

First of three parts

Critics say Sheriff Richard J. Rouse's response to scandal at South Bay has been mostly cosmetic. (Globe Staff Photo / John Blanding)

Part 1
Sexual abuse in Suffolk prison
A prison guard impregnates an inmate

Part 2
Guard brutality called rampant

Part 3
Rouse often an absentee sheriff

t night, she scrubbed floors, an inmate at the nearly new prison just yards from Boston's busiest highway.

He worked the day shift, 7 to 3, in a uniform and a badge that she says became a license to abuse her. Over time, she endured the guard's advances in exchange for coveted prison luxuries: cigarettes, or precious extra minutes outside the cell.

Early one morning, without warning, the woman who lay sleeping after finishing her graveyard shift felt the man's weight over her cell bed.

''I woke up to him pulling his hands out of my pants,'' said Karen Passanisi, speaking publicly for the first time. ''He stuck his fingers up inside of me.... I said `You (expletive) pervert. Get out of here.'''

The officer, whom she identified as Robert Parise, is one of eight employees fired or suspended since 1999 for alleged sexual misconduct at the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department. In that time, Sheriff Richard J. Rouse has likened the dismissals and discipline to a cancer cut away from an otherwise healthy institution. A few bad apples, prison officials have said.

But a two-month Boston Globe examination of the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay suggests that the cancer of sexual misconduct and other wrongdoing is deeply entrenched.

Beyond the sexual abuses, an ongoing federal investigation into beatings of inmates already has ensnared seven officers at the department's facility for detainees, the Nashua Street Jail. And a pending class-action lawsuit alleges that guards also routinely assaulted inmates at the House of Correction.

Further, the newspaper's examination of Rouse's nearly five-year stewardship found that he presides over an insular hierarchy that tolerates low standards and systemic abuses, and that the sheriff himself takes a decidedly lackadaisical approach to his position.

In an interview, Rouse strongly defended his administration's record and said he had taken aggressive steps to rid the sheriff's department of guards who had engaged in misconduct.

"There have been people who have not taken their job seriously and have violated their oath and have tarnished the badge," Rouse said. "And they're not tolerated."

Throughout the recent turmoil within the system, critics say a code of silence has taken hold and employees who violate it become prison pariahs who cannot always count on support from their supervisors.

The sexual contact revealed in 1999 was more widespread than Rouse's administration has previously acknowledged. At the time, the department fired three officers -- Parise, David Mojica, and David DiCenso -- for alleged sexual contact with an inmate whose 1999 pregnancy shattered the silence about sex inside South Bay. On May 2, a state paternity ruling established Mojica as the child's father.

A fourth officer, Richard Powers, was fired weeks later after the department found that he had sexual contact with another inmate, Lucy Diaz.

But the alleged sexual contact also included Passanisi, whose charges were known in 1999 but were not disclosed by officials; a male nurse who was quietly banned from the prison after allegedly receiving oral sex for favors; and more allegations of misconduct by Parise, one of the four fired guards.

The accusations against Parise and the male nurse are contained in a lawsuit filed by Passanisi this month. An attorney for Rouse said this week that after investigating Passanisi's claims against Parise, the department added them to the misconduct that it found warranted his firing.

Douglas I. Louison, an attorney representing Parise and numerous other officers, said the allegations, old and new, were unfounded, and predicted that the four guards now seeking to win back their jobs will succeed.

"Once a truly impartial fact-finder looks at the evidence, we are sure they will be vindicated," said Louison, of Merrick, Louison & Costello. Another lawyer from the same firm, Stephen Pfaff, said the guards would not comment individually on the allegations facing them.

As the guards seek to win back their jobs in closed hearings, inmate advocates have expressed outrage that none has been criminally prosecuted, a decision that rests in the hands of Suffolk District Attorney Ralph C. Martin II. Through a spokesman, Martin declined comment.

While female officers are often assigned to the womens' units at South Bay, the department has said that federal court rulings do not allow prison officials to bar male officers from guarding females.

To be sure, guard misconduct occurs to some degree in many correctional facilities. Just after the South Bay facility opened in 1991 -- five years before Rouse became sheriff -- charges of sexual abuse surfaced. But the Globe's investigation found that under Rouse, with his hands-off stewardship and his habit of awarding supervisory jobs to politically connected friends with little or no penal experience, the problems have worsened.

For inmates who submit to sex with their keepers, the prison becomes a strange playground -- a place where they can play cards with guards, watch movies late at night, and eat Chinese food supplied by officers.

In one instance, confirmed by two inmates, a guard loaned a cellphone to an inmate for a few days.

In another episode, documented in court records, an inmate loaned $150 to a guard. The inmate said she loaned the money for special food and the promise of a guard-inmate friendship that, while platonic, violated the most basic tenets of corrections.

In a deposition taken as part of a harassment complaint by a guard against the department, Deputy Superintendent Marie Lockhart acknowledged there is a commonly known early-warning system employed by Rouse's guards: They blow into their radios to warn each other when supervisors are making rounds. It's the signal -- worthy of a television situation comedy -- that the "white shirts" are coming and it's time to straighten up.

"What allows the bad apples stuff to happen, the most egregious behavior, is that the basics don't take place," said one well-placed source, describing what he and others say is the routine practice of officers watching television on duty. "And it's not unusual for officers to watch TV. Obviously, if your attention is focused on a TV, how can you focus on what inmates might be doing?"

Through it all, Rouse -- a former state representative from Dorchester and clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court with no corrections experience when former governor William F. Weld appointed him sheriff in 1996 -- has insisted that the misconduct is an anomaly.

A beaming master of ceremonies at ribbon-cuttings and prison program sing-alongs, Rouse has tried to keep the allegations of wrongdoing at arm's length. He described himself in the interview as "bringing this department to a new level." But critics say his grasp of corrections is minimal and his response to scandals has been mostly cosmetic.

Despite the sex-for-favors fiasco, no command officers have been disciplined for failing to supervise rogue guards -- a central charge leveled by critics. And last week, when a federal grand jury indicted seven officers for allegedly beating inmates at the Nashua Street Jail, Rouse did not take personal responsibility.

"I don't vouch for them personally," he said of three deputy sheriffs accused of beatings and a coverup.

No one accuses Rouse, a well-connected and well-liked Boston politician, of direct complicity in misconduct by his officers. But critics charge that by his benign neglect, Rouse tolerates a prison ethos that serves as an incubator for wrongdoing.

"There's a culture inside of the institution that's allowing this to take place," said Jamie Suarez-Potts, criminal justice program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, which advocates on behalf of inmates. "It's more than a few bad apples. You have to think of it more as a bad apple tree."

Life-altering experience

A member of her school's color guard who made harmless mischief growing up on Somerville street corners with friends, Karen Passanisi could scarcely have envisioned a life's path that would detour through the Suffolk County House of Correction.

But she began dabbling in drugs and worked for an escort service. And later, after her husband was deported to Italy and she lost custody of her two sons, she piled up drug charges that landed her in South Bay. The experience was humiliating -- and life-changing.

"That place broke me," the 33-year-old former inmate said in a lengthy interview in her apartment in Medford. "I'll never go to jail again, I'll tell you that."

The sheriff's department has not commented on the lawsuit filed by Passanisi last week. But according to her attorney, Anthony J. Antonellis, she already has testified at the department's request in ongoing arbitration hearings of one of the four guards trying to win back their jobs.

Her words, and those of others interviewed by the Globe, paint a chaotic picture of life on the 10th and 11th floors, where women prisoners are housed.

"The place was a mess," Passanisi said.

During Passanisi's time at South Bay -- from January to December 1998 -- she said she ate home-fried chicken supplied by an officer, and obtained heroin from a male prisoner. She also said she had several sexual encounters with a male inmate named "Johnny," while a guard played lookout.

"[The men] are not supposed to have any access to us at all," she explained. "But the guard used to flick the lights for us. If somebody was coming, he'd flick the lights and I'd run back to computer class and Johnny would get back to buffing the floors."

But those forbidden liaisons were the only times that Passanisi said she had consensual sex while at South Bay. In fact, specialists in prison culture have long argued that the power disparity between guards and the inmates they control is so great that consensual sex cannot exist, inherently.

As of last year, sexual contact between a prison guard and an inmate -- even if the participants call it consensual -- is a felony in Massachusetts. Previously, it was one of only 13 states without such a law. Within weeks of her arrival at South Bay, Passanisi charges, Parise began flirting with her openly, asking about her history as an escort.

Though she admits that she flirted back, Passanisi said that by the time she woke up and found Parise violating her early that morning in 1998, the climate of banter tolerated by sworn officers had laid the groundwork for assault.

"It was a lot of talk. But that's what it was, talk," she said. "I never told him that I wanted him to touch me."

That incident is one of several alleged by Passanisi in the lawsuit, filed under a pseudonymn in federal court last week. The lawsuit also accuses Parise of "hogtying" her in her cell with the earphone wires inmates use to silently watch television.

Parise was again complicit in the fall of 1998, the suit charges, when he showed up at Passanisi's cell with a friend, a male nurse who promised to provide a crude prison cosmetic -- peroxide used for hair coloring. But only at a price.

"He brought me in [another room] and shut the door and didn't say anything," Passanisi recalled of the nurse. "He just pushed me and motioned me and just like, `I'll give you the peroxide, but you have to [have oral sex with] me first.' And he made me [have oral sex with] him. . . . I didn't want to. I didn't."

The sheriff's department said that the nurse was a contract worker, not a department employee, and that it turned the case over to the Boston Police Department's sexual assault unit. Boston Police said they could not immediately verify whether Passanisi's charges were investigated.

For her part, Passanisi said she knew enough about prison politics to keep quiet about what happened to her. "I never went to anyone in authority about it," she said. "They're all together."

A showcase facility

When the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay opened on Dec. 26, 1991, it marked the first time since the Colonial era that people were not held against their will on a forsaken spit of land known as Deer Island.

If Deer Island was Massachusetts' red-brick equivalent of Alcatraz, the new South Bay facility off the Southeast Expressway would be its $115 million showcase for 21st-century correctional policy. It had locks on the doors, not bars. It used computerized cards, not keys. And, unlike Deer Island, it housed male and female prisoners.

Within nine months, however, there were reports of officers preying on women as they patrolled the spit-shined floors. The department was then led by Robert C. Rufo, now a district court judge, who declined Globe requests for an interview.

"We talked to women who knew it was going on and didn't like it," said Dr. Eric Brown, chief of mental health for Suffolk County's prison from 1987 to 1993. "Some were mad and some were horrified. And it made them frightened for themselves. Some were angry because they saw how these women were getting favors and they weren't. But they didn't want to give their bodies for it."

On Sept. 24, 1992, Brown and a colleague, Dr. Paul Zeizel, wrote a letter to then-Superintendent John Twomey, stating: "It has come to our attention that consensual sexual liaisons are occurring in the women's unit between female inmates and officers. . . . Whatever action is taken will require careful consideration and planning."

Twomey's response, Brown recalled, was unexpected.

"He was very alarmed and he said to me: `Listen, when I got that letter I just locked it up in the safe right away . . . . This can't get out. We're going to take care of it.' I said, `Great. This is a problem.' "

Days later, when Twomey called back, Brown said he wanted the names of women complaining about sex. Brown refused, citing doctor-patient confidentiality, but offered to try to come up with the names of the guards.

"Eventually, he came back to me, and he said, `You know this investigation is not going anywhere because we don't have names,' " Brown said. " `And if we don't have names there's just nothing we can do about it.' "

Twomey, according to family members, is out of state and cannot be reached for comment.

There would be echoes of Twomey's and Brown's exchange four years later, when a female officer, Deyanira Feliz, reported in February 1996 that fellow officer Richard Powers was treating an inmate, Lucy Diaz, to early-morning coffee, extra food, sneakers, and T-shirts.

The reports Feliz filed against Powers are part of a discrimination suit she brought against the department with the Masachusetts Committee Against Discrimination in 1999, in which Feliz accuses Powers of harassing her after she spoke out, and accuses the Sheriff's Department of tacitly condoning the harassment. The department is fighting the complaint.

According to the reports contained in the suit, Powers, whose brother was then president of the guard's union, would visit Diaz when she was not fully dressed. Feliz also reported that he would exercise with his shirt off, a grounds-for-dismissal charge that Powers has denied.

Fellow officers corroborated some of the allegations in department reports against Powers that, at the least, constituted violations of procedure. But a month later, Stephen Jacobs, then-chief of the sheriff's investigation division, cleared Powers of wrongdoing. Feliz was briefly transferred out of her unit and marginalized as a snitch at an institution where even today, few will speak to her.

The whistle-blowing guard -- a 12-year veteran and the mother of three -- said the message is impossible to miss.

"It says, `Keep your mouth shut and just look the other way,' " said Feliz. "I opened this can of worms thinking that it was going to be different. If I had to do it all over, I don't know if I would do it, to be honest with you. And that's very sad."

In 1996, six months after Feliz's reports alleging misconduct by Powers, a new sheriff arrived.

Citing Rouse's administrative resume and "street-wise" style, Weld named the SJC clerk to succeed Rufo.

"An important task in front of me is to enhance morale," Rouse said in September 1996. He said he had spent his entire career preparing for that day.

But within a year, enhancing morale would seem like a luxury: After her complaint against Powers went nowhere, Feliz obtained sexually graphic letters allegedly written by Powers to Diaz, the inmate who seemed to capture so much of his attention. The letters surfaced three years later, in 1999, and the department found the handwriting in them matched Powers's. In response, Powers told officials that while he had written the letters, he never sent them, and that they were taken from a locker.

By the end of that summer, a 25-year-old inmate would tell prison officials that she had had sex with more than one guard, and that she was pregnant. And by fall, Rouse had fired correction officers David DiCenso, David Mojica, Parise, and Powers based on the department's investigation of the accusations by Diaz and the pregnant inmate.

Early this month, the state Department of Revenue's child support enforcement division reported that blood tests showed a 99.966 percent probability that Mojica is the father of the baby girl conceived behind bars. Louison, the attorney for Mojica, said he could not comment on the paternity findings.

But Jack Sullivan, a union leader who also voiced support for the accused officers, said the paternity finding could change his view on Mojica.

"Abolsutely it would," said Sullivan, president of Local 419. "I'm not going to defend the indefensible."

Innocent beginnings

Sex on the 11th floor at the House of Correction often began, several former inmates of South Bay said, with friendly banter by guards who possess total control. In the words of one former inmate, who served time in 1999: "If you had long hair and a decent body at South Bay, you had it made."

For the women who participated, the favors they received in return may seem trivial to outsiders. But for those locked inside, home-cooked food, civilian underwear, cigarettes, even the privilege of keeping the light on past mandatory lights-out are the difference between doing time and being done in by it.

"Being in prison is all about one thing: deprivation," said Brown, the former mental health director. "You have so little. And for the women who have sexual relations with guards it would get them out of their cell."

In interviews, inmates and others familiar with the county prison described a surreal, jailhouse tableau in which guards and their "favorite" women would sit side-by-side playing cards, watching late-night comedy on television, eating take-out food, or wandering the cellblocks, scrambling into their cells only after word spread that supervisors were on the way.

With limited schooling, addictions, and a history of using their bodies just to survive, some women said the factors pushing guards and inmates toward sex seemed unavoidable. The flirtations and favors parceled out over time planted the seed in some women that they were special, even as they gave up their bodies in stairwells and secret rooms.

"The girls flirt with the officers and the officers flirt back," said Anna Marie Turavani, an East Boston woman convicted of numerous assault and battery counts in 1995. "They're both at fault. The [guards]are stupid, if you ask me. They make good money. If I was an [officer] I wouldn't [jeopardize] my job."

Turavani said she once witnessed a guard loan a cellphone to the woman who later gave birth to Mojica's baby -- a loan confirmed by the inmate.

"The phones were down in the [prison] and she said you could make a call on this," said the woman, who declined to give her name. She said the guard let her keep the phone for a few days.

"I called my boyfriend. I called my son. I called my father," she said. "My father thought that I had escaped or something."

Once, when Turavani said she yearned aloud for some Kentucky Fried Chicken, a guard named Linda Medina allegedly produced a bank statement and said she was in need of money. Turavani said Medina offered to supply the chicken for $250, settling instead for $150: It was all Turavani had in her account on the outside.

"After I gave her the money, she stopped talking to me," said Turavani, whose mother brought a small-claims court action against Medina. Court papers on file in East Boston District Court show a judge ordered Medina to return the money after she failed to appear in court. Turavani said she still has not received her money, despite the judge's order.

Attempts to reach Medina were unsuccessful.

If some women described the sexual relations as a crude kind of prison commerce, one former inmate, Maria Perez, said she never agreed to pay the price she said was exacted from her for contraband cigarettes, extra television time, and freedom from her cell.

Perez, who served time for drug offenses, filed a lawsuit in 1999 charging Mojica with coercing her into sex. It began, Perez charges in the suit, when Mojica ordered her to stay behind in her unit while other inmates went to lunch.

"I was scared," a tearful Perez said in an interview. "I didn't want to do it. I told him I didn't want to do it. He still did it without a condom.

"And after that he wouldn't stay away from my door. I was in the room crying, cleaning myself. When I looked up, he was right there watching me. . . . I was scared. And then he told me I better not say nothing to nobody."

Frightened that she would be transferred to a facility far from her family, Perez said she did not report the incident. Instead, fearful of a pregnancy that did not develop, she took large doses of hoarded depression medication, hoping to induce a miscarriage, she said.

"I used to wash myself over and over and over again," she said. "I felt he had the power to do with me whatever he wanted."

In a response to the lawsuit, Mojica has denied all charges against him.

If Rouse has been criticized for fostering a climate of misconduct, attorneys and advocates for former inmates lay the blame for the lack of criminal prosecution of guards squarely at the office of the Suffolk district attorney.

James P. Brady, an attorney and former correction officer who now represents Perez, criticized Martin for not pursuing the cases criminally.

"Do you think any jury in the world would say, `Oh well, she consented?' " Brady said. "I'd love to see them make that argument."

In 1999, Martin's office brought, and then dropped, indecent assault charges against a guard for grabbing a female inmate's buttocks. Currently, it is prosecuting another guard, Mark Vaughn, for two counts of receiving corrupt gifts -- in this case sex in exchange for favors.

But no such action has been brought against Mojica, Powers, DiCenso, Parise, or the male nurse.

James Borghesani, Martin's spokesman, refused requests for an interview about the lack of prosecutions related to the most serious charges of sexual misconduct. But he said an investigation into misconduct at the sheriff's department is ongoing.

Close scrutiny

Since the FBI launched its investigation into misconduct by Suffolk jail guards in 1999, it has focused more closely on brutality than on sexual wrongdoing. But South Bay, and the sheriff's department, remain under a prosecutorial microscope.

If investigators look closely, some prison officers and administrators say, they will find that even if sex between guards and inmates has diminished since the federal investigation, the breeding ground of lax security and shoddy supervision that allowed it in the first place still thrives.

"Some people know there have to be problems with management for there to be this many problems," one sheriff's department official said. "But nobody is going to talk about it openly. If you can't admit that problems exist, it makes it very very hard to address them."

A core problem, critics say, is Rouse's resistance to implementing basic reforms and safeguards, while touting changes that carry little impact in deterring wrongdoing. One glaring example, several said, is the absence of recording videocameras in inmate areas -- a tool that has become standard practice in modern facilities nationally.

Of the four largest county sheriff's departments in the state -- Plymouth, Middlesex, Essex, and Suffolk -- only Suffolk County lacks this safeguard. Suffolk's cameras monitor in real time, but do not record for later viewing.

A past president of the Massachusetts Sheriff's Association from 1998-2000, Rouse said he was unaware of surveillance practices elsewhere.

"It's a good suggestion," Rouse said of the technology, which other counties adopted as early as 1995. "I'm not opposed to better camera surveillance. Not at all."

But Rouse did not say he would implement the technology in the future.

Meanwhile, alleged sexual misconduct by guards under Rouse's supervision continues.

In mid-February, Sergeant Mark Sutherland was suspended with pay for alleged improper physical contact with a woman at the Nashua Street Jail.

A month earlier, another guard, Jonathan Cross, logged 350 hours of calls to a phone sex line from work before he was caught and suspended for six months.

Sutherland said this week he could not comment on the allegations; his case is still pending.

Attempts to reach Cross were unsuccessful, but a sheriff's department spokesman said Cross agreed to the suspension and a payment of $349 to the department for the calls.

As for the four guards seeking to win back their jobs, Karen Passanisi was among those who testified against the officers in the closed hearings.

Despite prison guidelines that make even the most benign contact between a guard and an inmate grounds for dismissal, Passanisi said she tried to explain to her former keeper, Parise, that even by the strange rules of engagement at South Bay, he had gone too far.

"I said to him, `I know that I have flirted with you,' " she recounted. " `But if I ever said anything, you had to have taken it the wrong [way] because I never meant to make you think that it was OK, or that I wanted you to touch me like that in any way.'

"And I told him, `I'm really sorry if you got the wrong vibes. But I didn't want you to do that to me. It wasn't OK for you to do that to me.'

"I looked right at him."

Francie Latour can be reached by e-mail at; Thomas Farragher's e-mail address is

Next: Allegations of brutality.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 5/23/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

Boston Globe Extranet
Extending our newspaper services to the web
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company

Return to the home page
of The Globe Online

Click here for advertiser information