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Life On ‘The Farm:’ Lawrence Jail Prepares Inmates For Re-Entry

BOSTON — Prisons and jails are overcrowded, and they’re expensive, too. One safe solution to both problems is to put fewer people behind bars by turning inmates around so they don’t come back.

One jail seems to be succeeding. The problem is that not enough inmates can get into it.

The Essex County Correctional Alternative Center in Lawrence lies between Route 495 and the banks of the Merrimack River. Inmates call it “The Farm.” So too do the people who run the Essex County Corrections Department.

“It’s wide open. And it’s a serious trust factor,” said Superintendent Joe Furnari.

Imagine an open campus where inmates live like students in a dormitory setting. There are no jail bars, no uniforms, no guards and no fence.

A Different Prison Life

“We have a capacity of 340 and we all live together,” Furnari said. “And we treat [each other] with respect as if you’re living here. I tell the guys: it’s like living at your grandmother’s house. You wipe your feet, take your hat off and watch your mouth. All kidding aside.”

The Essex County Correctional Alternative Center in Lawrence has no jail bars, no uniforms, no guards and no fence.

Designed to look and feel like life on the outside, The Farm embodies the philosophy that the way to turn inmates around is to push them into treatment, training and supervised early re-entry on the other side of the wall.

Assistant Superintendent Jim Petrosino helped design the re-entry program.

“If you get these guys a job, housing and have them go to meetings,those are the three important things to keep these guys from coming back,” Petrosino said.

Indeed, a significantly lower percentage of inmates come back to jail after graduating from The Farm. The recidivism rate is more than 20 percent lower than at Essex County’s main jail, the House of Corrections in Middleton.

From the top down, everyone and everything at The Farm runs toward “re-entry.”

“Get ‘em back out there,” Furnari said. “Get them involved. Get them up in the morning. Get them back to what they’re supposed to be doing. Get up, get washed. Have a meeting. Go work. Come home. Have dinner. Have another meeting. Get yourself together. Think about what your plan’s going to be when you get out.”

The Farm has to work fast, because the average inmate stays in jail for only eight months. But the atmosphere is brighter than in the conventional jail.

“Up here, inmates have hope, optimism, there are alternatives here you don’t have in Middleton,” said inmate Ernest Scurrah. He was sitting next to his mother in a setting far more relaxed than in the higher security, overcrowded jail in Middleton.

Getting Into ‘The Farm’

In terms of incentives, getting to The Farm is a big carrot.

“There’s a more positive outlook here than there is when you’re incarcerated. You’re in Middleton. It’s very structured, very strict. It’s a very negative atmosphere down there,” Scurrah said.

Down the road, at the House of Corrections in Middleton, is where every Essex County inmate starts out and where many will remain for the rest of their sentence.

The Farm’s recidivism rate is more than 20 percent lower than at Essex County’s main jail.

But the deal between the Alternative Correctional Center and eligible inmates in Middleton is straightforward: Show us you want to improve yourself. We’ll get you out of the jail and up to The Farm and help you find education, housing and outside jobs where you can begin work before your sentence ends.

“So you can go out and get a job the last 90 days of your sentence, have some money in your pocket, instead of just being walked out the front door of a correctional facility with not a dime in your pocket and your buddies that you got arrested with picking you up in the parking lot.”

But you have to earn the opportunity, said Middleton Superintendent Michael Marks.

“We put a plan in place for here,” Marks said. “We want you to go to the substance abuse community and we want you to do at least 60 days there. Show good faith you’re committed to being clean and sober.”

The contrast between the Middleton jail and The Farm, between chains and basketball hoops, between resignation and hope, is striking.

Nobody knows that better than Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins. He presides over both The Farm and the Middleton jail. And under Cousins, Essex County has 100 more inmates in re-entry than the entire state prison system. But he is frustrated that he can’t move more people from the jail to The Farm and toward re-entry.

Lack Of Space Poses Problems

“It’s almost like a hotel lobby or hospital emergency room, where you’re trying to find someone a bed, trying to get a doctor to look at him, you know, it’s the same routine,” Cousins said. “Really when you look at it, it’s exactly the same.”

In the sheriff’s case, it’s actually worse — it’s as if there are mass casualties and the doctors can’t operate. State sentencing laws tie his hands when it comes to treating inmates who’ve committed a range of crimes, such as selling drugs in a school zone or failure to pay child support.

“If there’s a mandatory, you can’t really move them up to the Lawrence Farm, you can’t let them do community service, you can’t let them do work release, because that individual has to be housed at the House of Correction,” Cousins said. “You’re limited what you can do with them, even though they are going to be released.”

So even here in Essex County, which embraces re-entry, warehousing and stockpiling become the policy by default at the Middleton jail for many inmates who might be eligible and motivated. Meanwhile, The Farm continues to send graduates into jobs and halfway houses and after-release supervision that makes their return to jail much less likely.

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