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‘It was swept under the rug’: Details emerge about officer assault on incarcerated man in Concord prison

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Peter Biello
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NHPR
The New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord.

Donald J. Freese said he was just trying to get his stuff back when corrections officers assaulted him in April 2021 at the State Prison for Men in Concord.

He said the attack happened a few weeks after officers took his belongings away. When he asked the officer in charge, Lieutenant Christopher Turcotte, about returning his stuff, Freese said Turcotte rejected the request and began to verbally belittle him.

“I totally ignored him and I walked out mid-sentence and started walking back to my unit,” Freese said. “He came running out and told me to put my hands on the wall. As soon as I put my hands on the wall he came from behind and punched me in the left side of my jaw.”

Freese said the assaults that followed are the two “use-of-force” incidents now under investigation by the state Attorney General’s office. The AG’s office released a list in February of 14 current and former corrections officers under investigation in connection with these incidents.

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Courtesy
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Donald J. "DJ" Freese is accusing several NH corrections officers of assaulting him.

None of the corrections officers under investigation agreed to be interviewed for this story. Three of them are under investigation solely for how they documented the assaults. The state prison system also declined to comment on this story.

“Use-of-Force”

In that first assault, Freese said three other corrections officers joined Turcotte. Freese said he fell to the ground and Turcotte held his face up and told another officer, John Aulis, to kick it. Freese says Aulis kicked him three times in his right eye.

Incarcerated men living nearby witnessed the assault. Among them was Joshua Peno, a friend of Freese, who said the officers beat Freese for “a good five minutes.”

Peno said corrections officers stomped on the back of Freese’s head, on his ribs and they punched and kneed him.

“They were standing on the back of his head when his face was on the ground,” Peno said.

The second assault happened after the corrections officers took Freese to a different location within the prison. NHPR can’t confirm if anyone other than prison staff witnessed what happened there to Freese, or if there were security camera tapes recording what happened.

But medical records show Freese was eventually strapped into a restraint chair. He had red marks on his face and head, dried blood on his nose, and a swollen eye. Later that day, at Catholic Medical Center, doctors noted pain in Freese’s leg and back and blood in his eye. Freese said his injuries lingered.

“My eye was completely shut for a week but I had a black eye for two months,” Freese said. “Couldn't even open it for a week.”

Captain Daniel Boynton is one of the corrections officers under investigation for documentation of the assaults. In an email, he told NHPR he wasn’t involved in what happened to Freese. He says not one person from the AG’s office has reached out to him.

“The AG's office is supposed to represent us instead of sending a letter to the Concord Monitor with all of our names in it,” Boynton wrote in an email.

The AG’s office does represent corrections officers in some, but not all, instances.

Geoffrey Ward, the senior assistant attorney general investigating the allegations stemming from the April 21, 2021 incident said he can’t comment specifically on this case.

“We go where the evidence leads us, in this and in any investigation,” Ward added.

Roadblocks to Accountability

But evidence of what happens in prisons is often controlled by prison officials, who can make it virtually inaccessible for those accusing the prison system or its employees of wrongdoing.

Freese said he sent many written complaints to prison leadership, but he said his messages, handled by prison staff, didn’t always make it to the warden.

By law, with few exceptions, incarcerated people must go through prison complaint systems before they can sue in federal court. If those complaints disappear, the process could be stalled at the earliest stage.

Reena Parikh, a law professor and director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Boston College Law, said it’s common for written complaints, sometimes called request slips, to go missing in prison.

“It’s hard to know whether these requests are being lost on purpose or whether the system is that disorganized with tracking, but on some level it doesn’t matter,” Parikh said. “The effect is that prisoners aren’t getting timely information back and their efforts are to no avail.”

Security camera tapes could be another key piece of evidence but Freese and his family’s effort to learn from the Department of Corrections what the tapes from that day show have been rebuffed.

Another incarcerated man, James Merchant, is facing a similar challenge. He’s suing four corrections officers he said assaulted him at the Concord Men’s prison. He’s seen some of the tapes from his assault, but he said he’s struggled to access the tapes he said will show he did not provoke his assault.

“If I get ahold of the camera footage it will show that I wasn’t resisting at all,” Merchant said.

Among the officers he’s suing is John Aulis, the same corrections officer Freese said kicked him in the face. Aulis and the three others are represented in court by lawyers from the New Hampshire attorney general’s office – the same office investigating Aulis for what happened to Freese.

In a statement responding to a question from NHPR about Aulis, a representative from the AG’s office said the Department of Justice “serves a dual role as both the chief law enforcement agency, and represents executive branch agencies in civil legal matters. This Office takes appropriate steps, including assigning separate attorneys, in order to ensure it performs both functions without prejudicing the other.”

The “code of silence”

Incarcerated people face yet another obstacle to making their claims heard: the “code of silence” that corrections officers allegedly follow. Krystal Robie spent years in the Men’s Prison in Concord. As a trans woman, she said she feared for her safety while being incarcerated in a prison for men and she said corrections officers rely on each other to cover up bad behavior.

“They don’t go against their own kind. They protect their own. They do not and will not go against them,” she said.

Each of these obstacles – this alleged “code of silence,” the missing written complaints, the hard-to-obtain surveillance video – create huge barriers for someone like Freese, who said he wants justice for what happened to him.

“Everything was swept under the rug,” Freese said. “But now it’s coming to light because I’m persistent.”

That persistence is buttressed by familial support, which is something not every incarcerated person has. Freese’s aunt, Dorothy Biswanger, contacted the AG’s office and the Department of Corrections shortly after the assault, asking questions and demanding answers about what happened to her nephew.

In a recent letter to Binswanger, the Public Integrity Unit of the state AG’s office, which reviews complaints of alleged criminal conduct by state officials and law enforcement officers, said it concluded “that there is sufficient evidence to establish reasonable suspicion that further investigation will lead to probable cause that a crime occurred.”

The family’s persistence has helped them get this far, but the rest of the process is now up to the AG’s office. It’s unclear when the investigation will conclude or what it will yield.

Freese expects to leave the state prison system this week.

Corrected: April 26, 2022 at 2:04 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include DJ Freese's full name.

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