SHIRLEY - On a manicured hill that looks like a college campus, men covered with tattoos trot around a field of grazing cows, while others tend to gardens near a patch of woods or play basketball beside a busy road - all with scarcely a guard in sight.
Unlike two other state prisons in the distance, where razor wire tops tall fences and guards lurk in lookout towers, the only physical barriers preventing more than 300 prisoners from disappearing into the thicket of trees or hopping into a getaway car are scattered signs warning that going beyond is “out of bounds.’’
“It would be easy to escape,’’ said Edwin Guadalupe, 31, who is serving a five-year sentence at the minimum-security section of MCI-Shirley, where some inmates spend years before wrapping up sentences for crimes as serious as second-degree murder.
But it wasn’t until a gang-connected inmate, Tamik Kirkland, escaped and allegedly went on a shooting spree inside a Springfield barbershop last April, leaving one man dead, that the full risk of minimum-security prisons became clear.
The escape has raised questions about whether inmates such as Kirkland, an aspiring rapper serving a 2 1/2-to-4-year sentence on gun charges related to a 2008 murder attempt, should be housed in a prison without walls. At a minimum, many questioned why it was so easy for Kirkland to slip out an unbarred window and into the night undetected.
“If he wasn’t able to walk away so easily, that violence would have never taken place,’’ said Sergeant John Delaney of the Springfield Police Department. “It would have saved the city of Springfield a lot of heartache.’’
All but two of the 73 prisoners who have escaped from Massachusetts prisons since 2000 have come from similar facilities that lack fences or walls around the perimeter, even though they hold fewer than 15 percent of all state inmates. Twenty escapees remain at large, and at least four others were accused of new crimes while they were free, Department of Correction records show.
Yet, defenders of minimum-security prisons say the Springfield killing should not overshadow the value of these facilities as training grounds for life after prison. Research shows that inmates released from minimum security are less likely to commit future crimes than those released from higher-security prisons. If anything, prisoner advocates say Massachusetts should make more use of minimum-security prisons.
“You have to accept some risk when preparing prisoners for reentry,’’ said Leslie Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, a nonprofit prisoners’ rights group. “It’s just like surgery. The risk you may die from an operation may be infinitesimal, but the risk is still there. To have the public assume that there’s absolutely no risk is inaccurate. We don’t want to give people a false sense of security.’’
Few are more angry about Kirkland’s escape than fellow inmates at MCI-Shirley, many of whom feel they are paying for his crimes with new security measures, such as bars on some of the windows. Dozens of interviews with inmates during a rare three-day visit to state prisons over the summer suggest they value the relative freedom of minimum security and worry about losing it.
For prisoners such as Guadalupe, who was sentenced three years ago for illegally possessing a gun and lived in the same dormitory as Kirkland, there’s a significant difference between living at MCI-Shirley and at the medium-security prison in Concord where he started his sentence. There are fewer fights, more freedom of movement, and the opportunity to leave prison grounds to mow lawns, paint walls, or do other jobs on a supervised work crew, all of which earn inmates time off their sentences.
To leave his dorm, all the father from Lawrence has to do is sign out at the front desk. The cover of the surrounding foliage and the fast-moving traffic of Route 2 are tantalizingly close. If he wanted, he could slip away unnoticed, even in the light of day.
But like many prisoners, he said it would make little sense to flee now, so close to finishing his sentence, especially when a failed escape can tack on up to 10 more years in prison.
Sitting on the bunk bed of his dorm room, where he can see both the road that would take him home and the imposing fences around the medium- and maximum-security prisons at the bottom of the hill, Guadalupe said he was mystified by Kirkland’s decision.
Few are more angry about Kirkland’s escape than fellow inmates at MCI-Shirley, many of whom feel they are paying for his crimes with new security measures, such as bars on some of the windows.
“Who wants to have to run for the rest or your life?’’ he said. “At this point, I don’t see the point in walking away.’’
Christian Roche, 32, a former drug dealer from Holyoke who has spent more than five years in prison, said he couldn’t understand why anyone would escape while so close to wrapping up their sentence. “Why would I run now?’’ he said. “We’re on our way.’’
. . .
The shooting at the Springfield barbershop - an apparent act of revenge in which Kirkland, 25, allegedly wounded a barber at Bill Brown’s Beauty, Barbershop and Supply and killed a young father in the barber’s chair before being seriously wounded in a shootout with police - rekindled a debate over prison security dating to at least 1988.
During the presidential campaign that year, Vice President George H.W. Bush lambasted Governor Michael Dukakis for a weekend furlough program that allowed Willie Horton, a convicted murderer sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, to escape and rape a woman in Maryland.
In the years since, Massachusetts has throttled back on programs that could be seen as overly generous to prisoners. Not only is the furlough program gone, but the percentage of Massachusetts inmates sent to minimum-security prisons has plummeted to less than half the national average, as the state has toughened the requirements for inmates to qualify.
Today, prisoners are not eligible for minimum-security prisons until they are within four years of the end of their sentence, a limit adopted in 2006, and they have to behave. If they are disciplined for violent or unruly behavior, the inmates may be sent back to a higher-security institution. Sex offenders, first-degree murderers, and those with outstanding legal issues are ineligible.
Still, Department of Correction officials say they prefer to move inmates into lower-security prisons if possible, because inmates are less likely to return if they make the transition to society from lower-security prisons. In addition, minimum security only costs the state $38,000 a year per inmate, nearly 30 percent less than maximum security.
The idea is that lower-security prisons, especially those like Shirley that lack a walled perimeter, offer inmates a taste of freedom and a test of responsibility.
The most recent data available show that 57 percent of inmates who leave a maximum-security prison in Massachusetts return in three years, compared with 37 percent of those exiting a minimum-security prison or prerelease facility.
But as of this spring, little more than 13 percent of Massachusetts’ nearly 11,500 inmates were in minimum-security or prerelease facilities, down from 23 percent in 1988.
Nationally, by comparison, 35 to 40 percent of inmates are in minimum-security prisons, according to the US Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections.
Walker, of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, argues that the state’s limits on the use of minimum-security prisons has a measurable impact: a growing number of inmates walk out of medium- and maximum-security prisons with little preparation for civilian life and no parole or probation officer to keep an eye on them. Last year, nearly 1,800 prisoners were released from medium or maximum security to the streets, a significant number with no post-prison supervision.
And the number of inmates leaving prison unsupervised is likely to increase as parole becomes harder to obtain, due to a state crackdown on eligibility. The state Parole Board sharply limited supervised release of inmates after Dominic Cinelli shot officer John Maguire of Woburn in the middle of a robbery last December. Since then, the state has approved only 35 percent of parole requests through summer this year, compared to 58 percent the year before.
David C. Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, said years of evidence shows more eligible prisoners should be sent to lower-security facilities.
“We know that stepping prisoners down progressively and allowing them to have more responsibility works,’’ he said. “More prisoners in medium and maximum mean more prisoners released directly from medium and maximum prisons, and everything we know shows that that’s bad for public safety.’’
But given the unpredictability and volatility of some inmates, the state should be wary of permitting too many inmates in lower-security prisons, especially inmates such as Tamik Kirkland with a history of violent behavior, said Francis Bloom, a Wilbraham lawyer representing Darryl King, the barber who survived shots that Kirkland allegedly fired in Springfield.
Kirkland, who had been in prison for weapons offenses stemming from a 2008 shooting in Springfield, had also been incarcerated in 2003 after being convicted of selling cocaine and illegally carrying firearms. He escaped in April after learning that his mother, Victoria Davis, had been grazed by bullets in an apparent attempt to kill her, and he was allegedly seeking revenge.
“Unless it’s just drunk drivers or those without a history of violence, they ought to have a fence, or some other sort of perimeter security,’’ Bloom said.
Sergeant Delaney of the Springfield Police Department said there also should be better coordination about prisoners between police and correction officers. He said officials at MCI-Shirley initially blamed police for not alerting them that Kirkland’s mother had been shot shortly before he escaped, information prison officials said would have prompted them to move Kirkland to a more secure facility.
But Delaney said they had no easy way of making the connection, given that mother and son had different last names. “We don’t have a questionnaire to use to ask victims if they know someone in prison,’’ he said. “It’s not something we do. Almost everyone we have contact with has someone they know in prison.’’
State Representative Jennifer Benson, who represents Shirley, said she has urged the state to ensure they have enough officers on duty at all times and to alert the public as quickly as possible about any future escapes.
“It was very concerning that [Kirkland] could walk away and commit the crimes he did,’’ she said. “These issues continue to weigh on me.’’
. . .
On the stately grounds of the MCI-Shirley minimum-security prison, which still has some brick buildings from the days when it was a Shaker village, the only real barrier to an inmate running for the woods is his own choice.
Not only are there no fences around the perimeter, but there are usually at most 16 correction officers during a day shift and 10 at night, looking after about 320 inmates. And many prisoners leave the grounds to rake leaves or do other jobs.
One morning in June, Captain Richard Tremblay watched a crew in orange shirts push lawn mowers through a cemetery in Lancaster. He said correction officers must keep a log to account for the inmates’ whereabouts once an hour.
If an inmate runs, he said, they are not authorized to chase them. The protocol is for the correction officer to call police, round up the other inmates, and take them back to the prison immediately.
In addition to facing more time in prison, state prisoners caught after escaping are also sent back to higher-security prisons and may be required to stay for a time in a segregation unit, where inmates spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.
Of the 20 inmates who escaped in the past three years, 19 have been arrested, all within four months, Department of Correction officials said. Four of those fugitives, including Kirkland, were charged with new crimes while on escape, though the charges were dismissed against two of them. Correction officials could not say whether the others had committed crimes while they were at large.
But those cleared for community work crews must have first held a job inside the prison, and they rarely cause problems. “These guys aren’t looking for trouble,’’ Tremblay said.
Eligible for parole in two years, Maurice Williams, 49, who was serving up to 12 years for armed robbery, said he wants to get out the right way. By working on a crew, he earns $3 a day and five days per month off his sentence. “I’m just trying to go home,’’ he said. “I don’t want to have to look over my shoulder the rest of my life.’’
Still, for most prisoners near the end of their sentence, the relative freedoms of minimum security offer a path to acclimate to society, providing practice holding a job, overcoming temptations, and learning to live with greater independence, which is why many were livid when Kirkland disappeared and allegedly went on his shooting spree.
Three months after the escape, department officials were using cranes to mount large grates to cover the windows in the old building that Kirkland fled. They installed new lighting, alarms, and motion-detection devices to make it less likely that someone could exit the dorms at night. And they said they had heightened covert surveillance.
“Our security procedures are sound,’’ said Scott Anderson, the acting superintendent of MCI-Shirley, adding there was no plan to build a fence around the prison. “It’s difficult to predict all human behavior, but we have put thousands through this, and they’re evaluated and assessed at every step. If we have concerns, we bring them back to higher security.’’
The new atmosphere at the minimum-security prison has disturbed inmates such as Gerald Fitzpatrick, 39, who was serving up to nine years for armed robbery. He lived in the same dorm as Kirkland - who is now at the nearby Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, the maximum-security prison in Shirley - and said every inmate there has been affected by the escape.
“It feels like we’re all being held responsible because of his nonsensical decision,’’ he said. “It put us all in jeopardy. We’re just trying to do our time and go home.’’David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @davabel.