Making room for inmates

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / May 17, 2012
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DEDHAM — Deep inside the Norfolk County Correctional Center, within the cream-colored cinder block walls of the segregation unit, three reluctant roommates share a cell that’s about the size of a walk-in closet. When one of them rests on the bottom bunk, one sits at a tiny child-sized desk by the barred window, and the third perches on the edge of a metal toilet, there’s not much personal space between them.

In order to make room for more inmates, the jail’s gymnasium has been transformed into a dormitory and is filled with rows of skinny triple-bunk beds. Inmates have also had to sleep on the floor in temporary plastic beds known as “canoes.”

Such cramped conditions are not unique to the Norfolk County facility. Every prison and jail in Southeastern Massachusetts is operating over its capacity, and overcrowding is an issue facing every correctional institution in the state. In Bridgewater, the Old Colony Correctional Center was built to house 480 medium-security inmates but currently houses 809. At the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in Dartmouth, every cell is double-bunked, and beds have taken over the gymnasium there, too, as the occupancy rate has skyrocketed to 384 percent.

“It’s getting steadily worse,” said Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, a Boston-based advocacy group. “I don’t recall the numbers ever being this high.”

Correction officials are bracing for an even bigger shortage of beds in the coming years as more people walk through their doors and more stay behind bars longer, due to tougher mandatory minimum-sentencing laws. The Massachusetts Department of Correction projects the incarcerated population will grow from about 11,892 in 2011 to 14,753 by 2019.

Accommodating criminals and suspects is always a tough sell, and it’s even more difficult in today’s economy. At a time when families are scraping by and wondering how they can afford to send their children to college, making extra room in prisons and jails is not the most popular choice of how to spend taxpayer money, said Norfolk County Sheriff Michael G. Bellotti.

“I don’t think a lot of people care,” said Bellotti, a Democrat who serves as president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association. “This is not really important to them, and I can understand why.”

But crowded prisons are a public safety issue, and “it’s a real problem that has to be dealt with,” he said.

Bellotti has overseen the Norfolk County Correctional Center, located on the median of Interstate 95 in Dedham, since 1999. It now houses more than double the number of inmates for which it was designed.

“Would I love to increase the footprint up here?” he said. “Yeah, I would advocate for that.”

Bellotti said that, historically, most inmates in the house of correction were convicted criminals serving their sentences, and detainees awaiting trial were in the minority. That is no longer the case, he said. Today, pretrial inmates make up half the population at Norfolk, and that creates logistical problems, because state law requires that they be kept separate from the convicts, he said.

Speeding up trials would help alleviate this problem, he said.

“I’d like to see the courts work quicker,” Bellotti said. “The cases are taking too long.”

Walker said she would also like to see the courts move faster.

“Everyone would like to speed up court processes,” she said. “Jails are clogged with people waiting for dangerousness hearings, and people who can’t make bail.”

Walker said that she has seen people locked up because their families can’t afford to pay as little as $50 or $100 in bail.

Massachusetts court statistics show that the pretrial population in jails is down by approximately 500 people since a recent peak in 2008, and has remained relatively stable. But it could be better, said Erika Gully-Santiago, a spokeswoman for the trial courts.

“Recent staff reductions resulting from the fiscal crisis — 1,300 fewer people since 2007 — have affected the ability to process cases as efficiently as possible,” said Gully-Santiago.

Bellotti said another way to ease overcrowding is to release some nonviolent drug offenders into the community more quickly. Those offenders could be monitored with electronic bracelets and regular drug testing while they attend mandatory classes and vocational training, he said. Moving them into the community this way allows them to “earn their freedom,” said Bellotti, “by doing the right thing.”

He has argued that the cost of locking up an inmate — anywhere from $60 to more than $125 a day — is far more expensive than supervising an inmate on parole.

The temporary Stack-A-Bunk beds known as “canoes” that are used in Norfolk County have also been used in Bristol County, where they are called “boats.” Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson said “boats” were once used in common areas of the jail, but that practice was stopped in 1998 after inmates successfully sued the department.

Hodgson, a Republican, takes a hard-line approach to corrections and keeps a keen eye on the bottom line as he oversees the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth and Ash Street Jail in New Bedford. Hodgson once quipped that his facilities are “not a health club, not a Holiday Inn. Jail should be jail.’’

Unhappy with the funding level for corrections, he expressed concern recently after the state took away $1 million for HIV testing and education in county jails in the latest round of budget cuts. He has also criticized the way money is earmarked for each county; he said Middlesex County got more money than Bristol, even though Bristol houses more inmates.

Hodgson used to charge inmates a $5 daily “cost-of-care” fee and had them pay for haircuts, GED tests, and medical appointments (the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the fees were unlawful). He still boasts that Bristol County has the lowest cost per inmate in the Commonwealth — about $63 per day.

Overcrowding, though, is very much an issue in the county’s facilities.

“When I took over the Ash Street Jail, there were two per cell and, at one time, they had three in a cell,” said Hodgson.

As a result of the 1998 lawsuit, a judge ordered that only one inmate should be housed per cell at the jail, and that there would be no more triple-bunking or having people sleep in “boats” on the floor at the house of correction in North Dartmouth.

The North Dartmouth facility was designed to hold 304 inmates when it opened in 1990. It is currently double-bunked and houses 1,166 inmates.

“We’ve got a poorly designed facility,” said Hodgson. “It’s designed like a college campus, unfortunately. I think we have good controls in place . . . but it’s always a dangerous situation for our staff. We need more locking cells than we have.”

Hodgson converted the gym there into dorms for detainees.

“It was one of nicest gymnasiums in the county,” he said. “It didn’t make sense to spend taxpayers’ money on building an addition to let them play basketball.”

Crowding is less of a problem at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, intended to hold 1,242 inmates when it opened in 1994 but which today handles as many as 1,600, said John Birtwell, spokesman for the Plymouth County sheriff.

“We’ve been able to manage those numbers,” said Birtwell. “We were designed with additional capacity. We can double-bunk.”

The facility is configured into “22 mini-jails” with cells that are spacious enough to hold extra beds, he said.

“We’re fortunate in the fact that we have a relatively new facility,” said Birtwell. “Fortunately, we were built with a little bit of extra wiggle room.”

Across the state’s prison system, double-bunking has become a common practice.

“Double-bunking of some sort exists in almost all DOC prisons,” Diane Wiffin, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, said in an e-mail.

She said the department has been adding beds and reconfiguring its facilities and how they are used. At MCI Plymouth, for example, 20 minimum-security beds were added in March 2008, followed by another 10 beds in March 2009, and another 10 in June 2010.

In order to accommodate more inmates, the state has also changed the missions of several of its prisons. In 2009, MCI Cedar Junction in Walpole, one of the most well-known maximum-security prisons in the state, was designated the official intake/reception center for men entering the prison system. The Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, which opened in 1998, now serves as the primary maximum-security prison in the state.

In January 2010, the Old Colony Correctional Center began specializing in inmates with mental health issues.

“Mental health staffing and programming are concentrated at this facility,” said Wiffin. “Inmates who are open mental health cases were transferred to OCCC through the department’s classification process, while inmates who did not have these issues were transferred to other DOC facilities.”

She said those moves were made to get the most out of the state’s facilities.

“The overcrowding situation left the department no choice,” said Wiffin. “There are no plans for new construction. Plans were carefully considered, with staff and inmate safety being the highest priority.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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