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Massachusetts: Overcrowding Forces Changes in Correctional Facilities

by David M. Reutter

Prisons and jails in Massachusetts have a problem: Almost every correctional facility in the state is operating above its capacity. Budget cuts have compounded the overcrowding problem because there is no money for new construction or expansion, and longer prison and jail terms due to tougher sentencing laws have resulted in rising population growth estimates.

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

The Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) projects its 2011 population of 11,892 will grow by almost 24% to 14,735 by 2019. The state’s expanding prison and jail populations have resulted in more prisoners being squeezed into cells designed for fewer occupants.

That is the case at the Norfolk County Correctional Center (NCCC), where a typical cell is the size of a walk-in closet. NCCC is housing three prisoners in such cells; two have a bunk while the third sleeps on a stack-a-bed – also known as a “canoe” or “boat.”

The Old Colony Correctional Center (OCCC), a state facility, was designed to house 480 prisoners but now holds over 800.

The population of the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in Dartmouth has jumped 384% over its original design capacity. When the Bristol facility opened in 1990 it was designed to hold 304 prisoners. Conversion of the jail’s gymnasium into dorms and double-bunking every cell has allowed officials to pack in 1,166 detainees, which created security issues.

“We’ve got a poorly designed facility,” acknowledged Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. 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’s efforts to increase the jail’s population without new construction, and to derive revenue from prisoners, have hit road-blocks. A lawsuit ended the use of “boats” in common areas of the jail [see: PLN, June 2010, p.23], and the sheriff’s $5.00 daily “cost-of-care” fee imposed on prisoners and fees for haircuts, GED tests and medical appointments were ruled unlawful by the state Supreme Judicial Court. [See: PLN, Jan. 2013, p.30].

Crowded facilities constitute “a real problem that has to be dealt with,” noted Norfolk County Sheriff Michael G. Bellotti. “I don’t think a lot of people care. This is really not important to them, and I can understand why.”

Bellotti would like to solve NCCC’s overcrowding problem by expanding the size of the jail. “Would I love to increase the footprint up here?” he asked. “Yeah, I would advocate for that.”

Another solution, he said, would be to reduce the pretrial detainee population, which was once a minority of prisoners at NCCC but now comprises around half the jail’s population. “I’d like to see the courts work quicker,” Bellotti stated. “The cases are taking too long,” and more people stay locked up as a result.

“Everyone would like to speed up court processes,” said Walker. “Jails are clogged with people waiting for dangerousness hearings, and people who can’t make bail.” She said some defendants can’t post bonds as low as $50.

But budget cuts have hit the courts, too. “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,” observed Erika Gully-Santiago, a spokeswoman for the court system. Despite those reductions, statistics indicate that Massachusetts’ pretrial detainee population is down 500 from its 2008 peak, and has been mostly stable.

Faced with a growing population, the DOC has been forced to make changes. “The overcrowding situation left the department no choice,” said DOC spokeswoman Diane Wiffin. “There are no plans for new construction. Plans were carefully considered, with staff and inmate safety being the highest priority.”

“Double-bunking of some sort exists in almost all DOC prisons,” Wiffin wrote in an email. Adding beds and changing the DOC’s mission for certain facilities have also helped to reduce overcrowding.

For example, 40 minimum-security beds have been added at MCI Plymouth since March 2008. MCI Cedar Junction, a maximum-security prison, was converted to an intake/reception center for male prisoners. The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center is now the state’s main maximum-security facility.

OCCC began housing prisoners with mental health issues in January 2010. “Mental health staffing and programming are concentrated at this facility,” Wiffin said. “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.”

The Plymouth County Correctional Facility, a jail operated by the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department, was designed to house 1,242 prisoners when it opened in 1994 but now holds up to 1,600. “We’ve been able to manage those numbers. We were designed with additional capacity. We can double bunk,” said jail spokesman John Birtwell. “We’re fortunate in the fact that we have a relatively new facility. Fortunately, we were built with a little bit of extra wiggle room.”

But what happens when there’s no more “wiggle room” or funds for new prison or jail beds? Sheriff Bellotti, who is currently facing that dilemma, advocates releasing nonviolent drug offenders on electronic monitoring, with regular drug tests as they attend mandatory classes and vocational training. Such offenders should be allowed to “earn their freedom,” Bellotti said, “by doing the right thing.”

Another option is litigation. On June 14, 2013, a state court judge ruled that overcrowding at the Middlesex jail inside the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge was unconstitutional. Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian was ordered to cap the facility’s population at 230 prisoners (it was originally designed to hold 160), and to transfer excess prisoners to other jails, including the House of Correction at Billerica, within 30 days. Previously, the jail had held up to 444 prisoners. The court also ordered that “no inmate or detainee is to sleep on the floor or on a plastic form bed on the floor. Each detainee or inmate is to have a bed.”

The ruling was entered in a lawsuit filed by Prisoners’ Legal Services, the ACLU of Massachusetts and several private attorneys. “It wasn’t litigation the sheriff strongly opposed,” said Prisoners’ Legal Services director Walker. “He knew he wanted the guys out of there and we wanted them out of there.” See: Richardson v. Koutoujian, Middlesex Superior Court (MA), Case No. 88-5857.

“The situation in Cambridge is untenable,” Koutoujian was quoted as saying in November 2012, while the suit was pending. “It’s a place that’s not safe for the inmates. It’s not safe for our officers. It’s just not a good place to be.”

Sadly, the same could be said about many other crowded prisons and jails in Massachusetts. State legislators apparently have not seriously considered the option of sentencing reform, which would reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system on the front end, thereby reducing overcrowding on the back end.

Sources: Boston Globe,

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Related legal case

Richardson v. Koutoujian