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Just Your Average Mass. Jail: It’s Overcrowded

BOSTON — The state’s budget crisis has provoked all kinds of dire predictions. Now, add this one: The chronic crisis of the state’s overcrowded jails and prisons is about to get worse.

Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins in 2004 (AP)

"We're going to run out of money this year. We don't have enough," says Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins, seen here in 2004. (AP)

Prisons are facing a fourth year of state budget cuts. And after the murder of a Woburn police officer by a prisoner released on parole, many state legislators are pushing for laws that would put more offenders behind bars for far longer sentences.

You Don’t Have Enough Cells

Frank Cousins has been the sheriff of Essex County for 15 years. He’s never had a day when his jail wasn’t overcrowded.

“This facility was designed for right around 550 people,” he says. “And they immediately double-bunked it, so this morning we’re at 1,138.”

Opened in 1991, the once “state-of-the-art” Middleton House of Corrections is now just your average American jail: it’s overcrowded. Across the country, the prisoner population has grown by 700 percent since 1972. Not one state has been able to build enough prisons and jails to keep up. And no one is even trying to anymore.

Yet, as sheriff, Cousins is expected to protect public safety, keep order in the jail and rehabilitate the crowd of inmates.

“I think that being the sheriff, other than being the commissioner of corrections or the governor, is probably the toughest job in the state,” he says while walking through the Middleton jail. A jail door closes after us with a loud metallic “thunk.”

Other jails in Massachusetts are far worse. On a recent day at the Bristol County Jail, it had 361 percent more inmates than it was designed to hold. You can see what overcrowding means when you go inside the gate of one of the modular, prefab units that make up the Middleton jail. The inmates and guards call it “Voke Two.”

“What do we have in here right now, 60 inmates? 74? 74,” says one of two guards who has the job of keeping all those inmates under control. Rows of double bunks and plastic bins that hold the inmates’ belongings swallow up most of the room. In the narrow lane of open space, we’re as cramped as commuters on the T at rush hour.

Mass. Prisons Population Growth, 1980-2008
Chart: Massachusetts prisons inmate population growth, 1980-2008

CLICK TO ENLARGE: Massachusetts prisons inmate population growth, 1980-2008 (WBUR)

“We can’t lock ‘em up,” says Capt. Peter Cignetti, who supervises Voke Two. “You can’t lock these people up because you don’t have enough cells?” I ask. “Right,” he says.

To get your own private 8-by-10-foot cell in Massachusetts you pretty much have to be considered special — either too dangerous or too much in danger to share all that precious space. By that rule, the inmates whose offenses have led them to be assigned here don’t rate. Even these guys don’t rate:

“This is where our offenses on children, women, sex crimes — they’re all in here,” Cignetti says. So too are gang members who have to be segregated from members of rival gangs. “There’s always something. We have to keep enemies away from each other.

“I have wheelchairs over here, I have people on crutches. Now I have a weapon, you know.

“We’ve got a lot of mentally ill that come in here. They’ll defecate themselves. They’re basically a 70 IQ, I can’t keep ‘em here. Well, what do I do with these guys?”

It’s a good question, but the guards and the sheriff don’t get to decide who belongs in jail. They just get to find some place to put them and control them.

And You Don’t Have Enough Money

Dominoes and whist, I’m told, are the most popular games in jail. Just as popular as the television in the corner. It’s tuned to “Jerry Springer,” the most popular show in the joint… along with “Cops.”

That may keep them busy, but if the jail is going to be more than a warehouse, Cousins says, he has to get the inmates into treatment and training and reentry programs. Cousins has only eight to nine months to do that before the average inmate finishes his sentence and gets out of jail, ready or not. But the sheriff says he’s handcuffed by the same laws that have overcrowded his jail in the first place.

“I’m not an advocate of any of these legislative things — ‘War on Crime,’ ‘War on Drugs,’ all of the ‘three strikes you’re out,’ that whole boot camp type stuff,” Cousins says. “All of that has been proved to be not an effective crime tool.”

Cousins is a former businessman. In terms of cost per inmate, he’s running the most efficient jail in the state, his data show. It costs Middleton only $25,000-plus a year per inmate. For state prisons and some other jails it’s almost twice that.

No one’s going to call the Republican sheriff soft on crime, either. Which makes it striking when he says we’re putting too many nonviolent offenders in jail who don’t belong there.

“I say the nuisance crimes that everybody reads in their local police blotter, the sheriffs are better served making them do community service,” he says. “And putting them on electronically monitored ankle bracelets instead of in cells, and having them on work release, paying victims issue restitution while they’re in our custody, and drug testing them and having a drug program.”

On top of overcrowding, his jail budget has been cut 13 percent in three years and he’s now facing yet another cut.

“We’re going to run out of money this year,” Cousins says in a moment of frustration. “We don’t have enough. You just can’t do it.”

Of so many of his 1,138 inmates he’s supposed to rehabilitate, the sheriff says, “These people are set up to fail.”

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