One Last Elevator Ride Down: Cambridge High-Rise Jail Is No More

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A high-security weekend operation has emptied the Middlesex County Jail in Cambridge of all its inmates.

Though the move from the notoriously obsolete Thorndike Street high-rise to the Billerica House of Corrections has long been planned, the sheriff’s office carried it out in secret.

'The Slammer In The Sky'

Seventeen floors up a hollowed-out high-rise in Cambridge, the secret plan began unfolding Friday morning. Everyone was escaping, corrections officers and inmates alike. Only the residents of “the slammer in the sky,” as some call it, did not yet know.

"The less that they know the better," Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian said. "They’ll know soon enough."

The red stripe around the 17th floor visually separated the Middlesex County Jail in Cambridge. (Courtesy of Middlesex Sheriff’s Office)
The Middlesex County Jail in Cambridge. (Courtesy of Middlesex Sheriff’s Office)

Koutoujian and sheriffs before him all wanted to break out from the Middlesex Jail. And practically everyone who knew the jail agreed with Koutoujian that it was about time.

"Every single day we had to worry about elevator failures, steam failures, hot water failures, water failures, electrical failures," he explained.

Now that he’d won a brand new temporary home up at the House of Corrections in Billerica, the sheriff could finally give the order: Move out.

Two-hundred-and-twenty pre-trial detainees were residing in the cell blocks “above the red." That’s the 17th-story stripe around the building that visually separates the jail and makes it an area landmark.

The inmates are awaiting trial or bail hearings or arraignments, and as such they are presumed innocent. Some are accused of simple drug possession, others of trafficking and as many as 35 or 40 with murder. So moving the jail involved more than worrying about furniture that went missing.

"The weakest point in our custody is the time that we’re outside of the four walls of our facility," Koutoujian said. "And so anytime you’re transporting, moving, having anyone outside for any reason — medical or otherwise — that’s the time you have to be most concerned."

Corrections officers had not informed the inmates because they did not want to trigger escape plots, and they didn't want the inmates to trash what was left of the cell blocks on the last night.

Gravity: The Biggest Enemy

In handcuffs and leg irons, waves of inmates took their last ride down the narrow elevator and a building condemned by history and experience.

The district attorney's office on the bottom, Superior Court in the middle, District Court higher up, then the jail in the heavens; it was a veritable layer cake.

Built in “the brutalist style” of architecture in 1971, the Middlesex County Court House stood like a solitary finger in the face of its East Cambridge neighbors. It looked like it belonged in the Soviet Union, and it fell apart faster. The district attorney and the trial courts evacuated six years ago.

"There is no air conditioning from the 17th level on the way up, and you will notice that as we start to walk through the facility," said Scott Brazis, who was the superintendent — he’s special sheriff now — when he gave me a tour of the top tiers in 2011. It was August. It was hot.

And inmates like Robert were feeling it.

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

Add to the heat the chronic problem of overcrowding that made everything worse even in winter.

"The place was built for 160," Brazis said in 2011. "We have a court order of 200, and as I said, today we’re at 375. As of last Monday we were at 411."

Last year a judge ruled the overcrowding cruel and unconstitutional. Brazis and the corrections officers under Sheriff Koutoujian did what they could to keep everyone and everything cool. They handed out Freeze Pops, for instance.

But Francis Brown, the first superintendent of the high-rise jail, says the problems came at birth.

"The jail was in someone else’s house," Brown said, meaning that the jail and the sheriff didn’t control the building, so he could not get the landlord to straighten things out.

Having the jail close to the courtrooms may have seemed a great idea, but Brown identifies the biggest enemy of the high-rise jail in a word: gravity. You had to move everything up and down. Decades later, everyone is finally headed down — and then up to Billerica.

The Transfer

With blank looks or tense faces, the inmates climbed a step which then moved them sideways in and out of a body-scanning X-ray machine that showed whether they were carrying drugs or contraband.

220 inmates were transferred from the Middlesex Jail over the weekend. (Courtesy of Middlesex Sheriff’s Office)
220 inmates were transferred from the Middlesex Jail over the weekend. (Courtesy of Middlesex Sheriff’s Office)

"They are all restrained," said Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Hopkinson. "We have our special operations unit on standby just in case something doesn’t go as planned, and they’re going to be escorted by the canine unit in case there's any problems on the bus."

Though the move is supposed to be secret, the inmates get onto a bright yellow, blue and white coach with “Middlesex Sheriff” in big letters on the sides. They holler and joke on the way out of the city but quiet down when the bus gets onto I-93.

Twenty-five miles later, the inmates arrive in Billerica wearing new uniforms of “pre-trial” gray. Their new detention unit has high ceilings, bright light, open space. It’s as if Cambridge has come to Kansas with air conditioning.

It took three bus trips and a half-dozen trips by van over the course of two days. By late Saturday morning back in Cambridge the last bus was about to finish the operation.

Each shackled inmate walked alone down the sally port, past the opening gate and out into the sunlight. He was faced by a dozen members of the SWAT team dressed in black and armed to the hilt with dogs at their sides. They didn't have to point the way to the bus.

For the corrections officers who are headed to Billerica as well, the routine is about to change.

"For the inmates, it's a change. They have no control over it," said Superintendent Sean McAdam. "For the staff, it's even more of a change for some of them."

They had made the best of a bad situation for both inmates and the officers, Koutoujian said. They had prevented the powder keg from exploding. And now they had moved everyone out without a hitch.

The moment finally arrived. The gate ceremoniously opened. And out walked the sheriff at 11:00. He and a senior corrections officer named Jim Minnelli escorted a somber inmate named Pitts who was no doubt surprised by the photographic pose for history.

It was over. Lt. Jack Severino took to the radio.

"Sheriff Koutoujian has asked me to tell you the Middlesex Jail is now officially closed," he said.

Before they left, one of the corrections officers turned, saw the jail gate left open and decided, “We better shut it. Someone might sneak in.”

Update: The inmate transfer brings the property closer to redevelopment. A mix of office, residential and retail space has been eyed for the location, but there's significant local disagreement over the development process, including the height of the building.

This article was originally published on June 30, 2014.

This segment aired on June 30, 2014.

David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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