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At The Middlesex Jail, Simple Gestures Help Keep The Peace

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It’s an old story that the state’s jails are jammed to the point of bursting, and that many of them are falling apart. Tension and trouble often follow overcrowding — that’s well reported, too. But how jailers and corrections officers treat and manage inmates can make a surprising difference. Simple gestures can have surprisingly positive consequences.

At the top of a high-rise that’s vacant all the way to the 17th floor is the three-floor lock-up known as the Cambridge Jail. In East Cambridge it’s a landmark, a solitary skyscraper with a stripe of red panels below the 17th floor. Kids growing up in the neighborhood always referred to the jail as “above the red.”

‘Above The Red’

Red could signify a temperature alert as well.

First there’s the human heat, as Superintendent Scott Brazis explained.

“The place was built for 160,” Brazis said. “We have a court order of 200, and as I said, today we’re at 375. As of last Monday we were at 411.”

In a building considered beyond repair the elevators often don’t work and the electrical and plumbing systems are bad.

But here’s the worst of it:

“They’ve taken what could be a powder keg in many other jurisdictions and made it into a manageable facility”
– Peter Koutoujian,
Middlesex County Sheriff

“There is no air conditioning from the 17th floor going the way up and you will notice that as we start to walk through the facility,” Brazis said.

I did. No air conditioning. And to put this into even more claustrophobic context, remember: this is a jail, where people await trial, not a house of correction, where people go after being convicted and sentenced.

“A jail inmate is somebody that does not know what tomorrow is going to bring,” Brazis said.

Or who’s going to be coming through the door at any time.

“We actually have 32 accused first-degree murderers in this facility today,” Brazis said.

Side by side with people charged with simple drug possession, stealing, and being disorderly. And when the anxiety starts bubbling, bring on the dog days of August. Turn it up.

“This place is really a powder keg,” said Peter Koutoujian, sheriff of Middlesex County and Brazis’ boss. “Every type of problem you can imagine in any type of facility, we have here times 10.”

The only sensible long-term solution would be to relocate. But that’s not happening any year soon.

Popsicles, A Short-Term Solution

In the short run, the superintendent has come up with a way to manage the seemingly unmanageable — it’s the gesture of Popsicles. Yes, Popsicles.

“I’m worried that people are going to think I’m either naive or being ridiculous, talking about the importance of Popsicles,” I told Brazis.

“Well, people think that I was an ultimate liberal,” Brazis said, “but we came up with this idea a number of years ago. We had a staff meeting and it was unbearably hot up here, and besides fans we were thinking, ‘What could we ever do to make sure that the population know that we know how hot it was up there? And what could help?’

“These Popsicles are three cents a piece. We hand them out after lunch and after dinner, and on the really hot days — a couple weeks ago when temperatures got to be 100 — we handed them out again at night at 10 p.m.”

The gesture hasn’t gone unnoticed by inmates, like Robert.

“It’s like over 90 (degrees) in the day, over 90 at night,” Robert said. “Animals at least get to cool off at nighttime.”

“You appreciate the Popsicle?” I asked him.

“Of course I do,” Robert said. “I have mine right here. It’s not like this is Camp Winnemuca, you know. We’re still behind bars.”

“It makes it easier,” I said.

“It’s a nice gesture,” Robert replied.

At The Cambridge Jail, Nice Gestures Go A Long Way

Robert Asarian, who is a year away from trial, handed out Freeze Pops in six different flavors.

“People tell me, ‘Don’t be silly. Popsicles don’t make a difference,’ ” I said to Asarian.

“Oh, sure they do, it’s a nice gesture — it says that ‘We care that you’re hot, cool you down for a few minutes,’ you know,” Asarian said. “They don’t have to do this. They treat you good here. They treat you like human beings.”

And that’s a better way to run a jail, said Brazis, who graduated up the ranks from being a tough street officer catching bad guys.

Everywhere you go in the jail, Brazis has made sure there are giant floor fans and wall fans. To people who think this is “coddling” inmates, Brazis points out that keeping inmates cool is in the best interests of his corrections officers.

“Our job is care, custody and control,” Brazis said. “We’re not here to judge anybody. We’re here to make sure they’re safe. And as long as they’re safe, the officers are safe, and that means that the whole jail is safe.”

And Koutoujian said the superintendent has proved something.

“They’ve taken what could be a powder keg in many other jurisdictions and made it into a manageable facility by the work that they do, by the way that they treat the inmates, by the way that they manage the inmates,” Koutoujian said.

The simple parable of the Popsicle may be keeping the heat down “above the red.”

This report is part of WBUR’s David Boeri’s occasional series on jails.

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  • gardenia

    I think they should build a new jail or at least bring this ancient monstrosity into the 21st. century.  In the meantime, the popsicles is a brilliant plan.

  • Hive22info

    I commend the officers in charge for being thoughtful, caring and finding a way to show compassion. But its cruel to not have air conditioning in a building that is grossly, and illegally over crowded. Legislators should amend laws so people who are picked up for minor drug or alcohol infractions or disorderly conduct are not kept in that particular building.

    • Mh169

      The COs deal with the same heat, but we have to still do “hands on work” AC exists only according to pay grade

  • say what

    all i can say is “INSTANT SHANKS”

  • Hglunz

    What an amazing idea!  Congratulations to Koutoujian for treating the inmates like humans instead of animals, so that they act like humans, and not animals.

    • JailBird

      Hglunz,

      Giving popsicles to inmates has been going on for long before Sheriff Koutoujian was ***GIVEN*** the job by his friend Deval. Therefore, Kotoujian should have nothing to do with receiving credit for popsicles! 

  • D Boeri

    To “say what”:  Not all popsicles are ice on a stick, though I understand that’s the common notion. The inmate who was handing them out called them “ice pops”, which is more accurate, I suppose.  The ice pops were frozen ice wrapped in plastic. Not stick there, although maybe you’d argue they  could be used as a “shank” as well.
    All I can report is that the ice without a stick still goes over well.

    David Boeri

  • Disappointed

    I am very disappointed that this article turned into a piece about Popsicles.   Mr. Boeri had rare access to the Cambridge Jail and thus had an opportunity to make the public aware of the horrible conditions at the jail and to garner public awareness for the urgent need for a new facility.  He started to discuss these conditions, but by using the “parable” of the Popsicles, Mr. Boeri shifted his attention away from the inhumane conditions and instead praises Mr. Brazis and his idea of using Popsicles to apease inmates.  Turning the focus of the article towards the use of Popsicles to pacify inmates is an insult to the men and women who work in this facility in 100+ degree heat and are put in real danger due to the severe overcrowding issue.  Where is the focus on the correction officers who work in the jail and face these conditions every day?  Where is the discussion of every last open area filled with bunk beds?  Where is the discussion that correction officers are grossly outnumbered in these open areas and elsewhere?  The article should have left readers and listeners concluding that the conditions in the Cambridge Jail are inhumane and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts should be ashamed that there are state employees that work in this facility under these conditions.  Unfortunately, I did not come to this conclusion from reading Mr. Boeri’s article.

  • Hank

    Brazis came up the ranks as a tough street officer catching bad guys?  This guy is a hack ano sheriffs in Mass. are on the streets!

  • Lal022ppc
  • Copaco

    I wish they were nice at PCCF

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