Prison closing plan still vague

Safety secretary says threat is real

Governor Patrick threatened to close two prisons last fall when Republicans held up a $400 million spending bill. Governor Patrick threatened to close two prisons last fall when Republicans held up a $400 million spending bill.
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / January 28, 2011

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A day after Governor Deval Patrick proposed closing two state prisons, his aides could not provide any details about how they would achieve that goal yesterday, raising the possibility this is one of many dramatic cost-cutting proposals that never come to pass.

Patrick has not identified which of the state’s 18 prisons would close, nor has he ordered state correction officials to draw up a list of facilities that could shut down. Perhaps most significantly, his administration could not explain how it would squeeze inmates from the closed prisons into a system that is already overcrowded, at 40 percent above capacity.

The vagueness of his proposal raises the question of whether Patrick is serious about it and whether he could implement it in time to help plug the state’s estimated $1.2 billion shortfall.

Patrick did not even mention the closings in his budget announcement Wednesday.

Often times during budget season the governor and lawmakers propose far-reaching ideas to cut costs with little expectation that they will become law. Sometimes they are used as bargaining chips or as leverage to pass other pieces of legislation.

Patrick’s prison-closing plan is being offered as part of a broader proposal to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and make them eligible for parole. The administration estimates 520 of those inmates would win release, easing crowded prisons and saving $4.9 million.

But not even that would free up enough room to close two prisons in a system that is over capacity by 3,000 prisoners.

“I don’t think it’s feasible, given the numbers,’’ said Brian Jansen, president of the state correctional officers union. “Where are you going to put the inmates from the released facilities?’’

There are also questions about the timeline. Patrick aides said that, under the most aggressive schedule, it would take three months to close a prison. But the budget year begins in July, and the governor would need those prisons to be closed by then to accomplish his goal of slashing prison spending by 9 percent, or $8 million.

Mary Beth Heffernan, Patrick’s secretary of public safety and security, insisted that the administration is going to push hard for the closings.

“I’m extremely serious, and I’ve been talking about this for three years, that the closure of prisons looms large — and we’ve reached that point,’’ she said. “We’re going to have to start doing this pretty quickly.’’

On Wednesday, the governor began the process by introducing legislation to give him unfettered authority to shut down prisons.

Patrick has threatened to close prisons before. He did so last fall when Republicans held up a $400 million spending bill, prompting the governor to argue that their blockade would force him to close two correctional facilities. Eventually, the bill passed, and no prisons closed.

It is unclear how the governor would handle the crowding that might result from another plan he has offered that would keep repeat violent offenders behind bars longer.

The state currently has about 11,000 prisoners, and each prison ranges from several hundred to about 1,500 beds.

Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said she welcomes the closings. Some prisons, she said, are crumbling and decrepit.

But she said it may not be possible for the governor to close prisons at the same time he is cracking down on violent offenders and toughening parole procedures after a parolee’s slaying of a Woburn police officer.

“That would significantly increase the prison population,’’ she said.

Legislators, who have been told little, also have questions about the plan that they could be asked to vote on.

They wonder, for example, if inmates would be moved from closed prisons into county jails. And they worry that those who are released may not receive adequate supervision.

Many are wary of any measure that appears soft on criminals, even low-level drug offenders, after the December shooting of Woburn Police Officer John B. Maguire by Domenic Cinelli, an armed robber who was paroled as he was serving three life sentences.

“We would like to see which prisons, and see the feasibility of it,’’ said Representative Vinny deMacedo of Plymouth, ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. “We all want something concrete.’’

Patrick’s plan to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses — which he says is needed to relieve overcrowding and improve chances for rehabilitation — is also bound to face opposition.

“We instituted these in the first place because we have a scourge, particularly in the inner city,’’ said Michael D. O’Keefe, district attorney for the Cape and Islands. “The public got fed up with it, and that’s why we have these sentences.’’

Levenson can be reached at