Mass. proposes facilities for elderly inmates
BOSTON—The state's already overcrowded prison system would have 12,000 fewer beds than needed to handle the inmate population by 2020 without major policy changes and expanding regional facilities to treat female, mentally ill and elderly prisoners, state officials said Thursday in releasing a new master plan for the Department of Correction.
The nearly 400-page report calls the current system "unsustainable," saying it would require some $2 billion in capital improvements and $120 million more in annual operating costs just to meet current demands.
"We cannot build our way out of this problem," Secretary of Public Safety Mary Beth Heffernan said. "We need to have a better common sense operating approach to who we put in our beds."
The plan calls for strengthening partnerships between the department and the 14 sheriffs' departments around the state that generally house inmates who are awaiting trial or serving sentences of 30 months of less.
The initial phase of the plan calls for using an existing 10-year, $550 million bond authorization to increase capacity in the system and better deal with what officials called "special custody populations."
The plan calls for creating about 325 new beds for women inmates at three existing regional correctional facilities. Heffernan said the expansion is needed to alleviate "appalling" conditions at the state prison for women in Framingham.
The plan also calls for one or more new facilities that could house aging inmates who need significant help with daily living and can no longer be adequately served within the general prison population.
While the report said the facilities could offer "assisted living" for inmates, state officials quickly dismissed any comparison to luxurious assisted living complexes that exist for some senior citizens.
"I've heard some of the wisecracks that are out there and I don't make much of them," Gov. Deval Patrick told reporters.
Republican Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson criticized the proposal, telling the Boston Herald that assisted living is expensive and questions why inmates should get specialized care when it can't be provided to the general public.
The same facilities that treat elderly inmates could also house some inmates who have mental illness, officials said.
The Correction Master Plan also calls for eventually ending the practice of housing federal inmates in Massachusetts prisons and would turn over custody of sexually dangerous people being held under civil commitments to the state Department of Mental Health.
State officials said even with these changes, success in easing chronic overcrowding also hinges on sentencing reforms including the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
Heffernan said prison beds should be reserved for "habitual offenders, bad guys and bad felons."