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.
This program aired on August 31, 2011.