Prison Chief Stepping down

By Andrea Estes
Boston Globe
April 18, 2007
She Sought Change and Upset Guards

Correction Commissioner Kathleen M. Dennehy, who was appointed to overhaul the state's prison system after the slaying of incarcerated priest John Geoghan, has been asked to leave her post by the Patrick administration, according to administration sources.

Dennehy, who vowed to create "a more humane system" when she became the state's first woman prison chief three years ago, remains in the post, but in May will join the Bristol County Sheriff's Office, which has earned headlines for its prisoner chain gangs and television ban. The Patrick administration is conducting a search for her successor, the sources said.

Since Governor Mitt Romney appointed Dennehy in March 2004, she has been a controversial figure. An insider who worked her way up through the state prison system, she inspired optimism among reform activists who believed she would bring a new openness and crack down on alleged abuse by guards . But she quickly fell out of favor with the union, which accused her of initiating policies that made the job of correction officers more dangerous.

"Her management style has been nothing but abrasive," said Steve Kenneway, president of the 5,000-member Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union. "Under her leadership, she has alienated the officers and changed policies that we believe will end up getting an officer killed. Morale has never been lower."

Kenneway pointed to a change in the use-of-force policy, which put new limits on what actions guards could take when provoked, and what he saw as her reluctance to push for prosecution of inmates who assault guards.

The system has also seen a sharp rise in suicides on Dennehy's watch, leading her to call for a study that recently highlighted serious shortcomings in the state's handling of at-risk inmates.

Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, said Dennehy initiated many positive changes, but ultimately was not able to transcend a prison culture that sees prisoners as "animals."

"It's very difficult to come in when you've worked somewhere for 28 years and make the changes that need to be made, including removing personnel that are part of the problem," Walker said. "Her tenure saw the beginning of many positive changes. . . . I sincerely hope the Patrick administration does a national search and locates someone from outside the system. That is what's really required to make meaningful reforms."

But Dennehy also has her champions, who say the commissioner did the best she could under very difficult circumstances.

"If advocates for prisoners think she wasn't tough enough on the guards and guards think she was too tough, that tells me she was doing her job," said state Senator Jarrett Barrios, Democrat of Cambridge and chairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. "There's nobody I've ever met in corrections . . . with as much vision for what corrections should be and with as much capacity to manage change as Kathy Dennehy. I truly think she's the best corrections official in the country."

State Representative Kay Khan, Democrat of Newton, who has worked on correction issues for more than a decade, said Dennehy tried to make changes but was met with resistance from the former administration.

"Her heart and mind have always been in the right place, though she's often been confined I believe by the Republican administration. She's had to be cautious about how far she's willing to go," said Khan.

Dennehy, who also plans to enroll in a doctoral program at Brandeis University, declined a request for an interview.

Patrick spokesman Kyle Sullivan also declined comment, saying the administration does not comment on personnel matters.

The change is occurring at a critical time for the agency, which has been struggling to negotiate a contract with the correction officers union for more than three years.

The union backed Patrick during the campaign, but did not lobby for Dennehy's dismissal, said Kenneway. "I don't take any credit. Any union president would have been rubbed the wrong way by her management style."

He said two policies in particular turned the union against her. After an inmate was beaten by guards, Dennehy changed the department's use-of-force policy, so that an officer who is provoked must stop before acting to consider what a neutral person would find a reasonable response.

Kenneway said that Dennehy has also downplayed the seriousness of assaults on officers and failed to press for the prosecution of prisoners who attack guards.

"We've had 650 assaults in the past year," he said. "They're banging on our officers left and right. Hundreds of officers have retired because of injuries."

Romney appointed Dennehy, as acting commissioner in December 2003 to replace Michael T. Maloney. He was ousted four months after Geoghan, a dismissed priest whose abuse of young boys helped trigger the clergy sexual abuse scandal, was killed in his prison cell by another inmate. Dennehy was officially appointed to the post three months later.

When first hired, Dennehy pledged to change the culture in the department and make employees more accountable.

One of her first actions was to strip more than 50 top managers of their state cars. She also railed against the code of silence among guards and what she has referred to as the union's Ten Commandments, which include, "Thou shall not rat on a fellow employee."

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said he approached her when he learned she might be looking for work.

"It's a real godsend to us that I was able to convince her to come on board," he said. "I was shocked they would let her go. I've got to believe a lot of people are. She's very much in line with the philosophies we have about reintegration and accountability, and she has incredible credentials."


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