The state is preparing for a nearly 500-bed expansion of the Middlesex House of Correction even as the project draws fire from Billerica’s Board of Selectmen.
State officials say the $37 million expansion is needed temporarily to relocate about 400 pre-sentence detainees from the overcrowded Middlesex Jail in East Cambridge to the Billerica facility while the state seeks to develop a new combined courthouse and jail complex in southern Middlesex County.
Billerica selectmen are opposing the expansion because of concerns about public safety and the impact on town services. They also contend the state has not involved them in planning for the project, which calls for construction of a pre-fabricated pod building and a dormitory-style building at the Treble Cove Road complex.
“The state has completely disenfranchised Billerica from having any say over a project adding 400 guests to a prison in Billerica that the town has been a great partner of for decades,” said Andrew Deslaurier, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.
Deslaurier said town officials first learned of the project a year ago when they saw the courthouse advertised for sale and read a newspaper account of state officials briefing the Cambridge City Council on the plan to move inmates to Billerica. He said the board voiced its opposition to the project then and had expected to be involved in the planning discussions, but it heard nothing until the state announced the project several weeks ago.
“In the past year, we’ve been completely thrown out of the equation. We have no input,” Deslaurier said, calling that lack of involvement “insulting” given the police, fire, and other services the town provides to the facility.
But Scott Jordan, assistant secretary of capital finance for the state’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance, said the state has not deliberately kept the town in the dark. He said the town might have that perception because after concerns were raised, state officials for some months held internal discussions on possible alternatives, though it ultimately ended up with largely the same plan.
“I feel it has been adequate,” he said of communications. “Big decisions like this are slow.”
Jordan said the state plans to work closely with the town to address its concerns during design. “The House of Correction is a good neighbor and we intend for them to continue to be a good neighbor,” he said.
“This is something we just have to do,” Jordan said of the relocation, citing the pending sale of the Cambridge building and overcrowding at the jail.
Located on the top four floors of the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse, the Cambridge facility was designed for 160 inmates and on a recent day there were 417, according to Jordan.
He said the state plans to use the proceeds from the building’s sale to pay for the future courthouse complex at an as yet undisclosed location. Middlesex Superior and Cambridge district courts and the Middlesex district attorney and sheriff’s offices were relocated to temporary leased spaces in 2008-09 because of asbestos and other facility issues, leaving the jail the sole occupant of the 22-story building.
Officials said once the new complex is open, the inmates now moving to Billerica will be transferred to that facility.
This year’s state budget authorized funding for a study into the construction of a new courthouse/jail complex, Jordan said, estimating it would be five years at least before the complex is complete.
The maximum-security Middlesex Jail in Cambridge houses the county’s pretrial detainees, while the medium-security House of Correction houses inmates with sentences up to 2½ years. But because of overcrowding in Cambridge, the Billerica facility is also housing some pretrial inmates. On a recent day, there were 754 sentenced inmates and 114 pretrial detainees in Billerica, according to Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian.
“I’d rather not have any [Cambridge] jail men up in Billerica,” Koutoujian said. “If I could be out of the Cambridge Jail as it is now and into a new building in the Cambridge area, I’d be there today.”
But he said years of efforts to find a new court/jail location — beginning well before he became sheriff in 2011 — have failed and “we need to get out of this building.”
The state also has committed $1.5 million to construct a regional lockup for area police departments on the grounds of the House of Correction in Billerica, and if the timing works, that project will be encompassed within the larger one, Jordan said.
A state master plan about a decade ago called for expanding the House of Correction by constructing six pod buildings, only two of which were built. The current project calls for an additional pod to house 256 inmates, and a dormitory building to house 250 inmates. The original tiered cell building also will undergo renovations aimed at helping the sheriff’s office secure accreditation for the overall complex.
Jordan said adding more beds than the number of inmates expected to relocate from Cambridge will ensure that the facility can accommodate a small growth in the numbers of pretrial detainees or sentenced inmates while keeping the two populations separated.
Deslaurier said the town objects to the overall size of the expansion, noting the added burden that will place on town services. He said the town is also concerned that the new inmates who are pretrial detainees can include those charged with more violent crimes than those committed by House of Correction offenders.
“That’s a different mission for that facility,” he said.
Koutoujian said the facility recently carried out a number of measures to tighten security at the House of Correction, following a state audit conducted at his request. He said those measures, which included adding more razor wiring in certain locations, has made the overall complex safer and has helped with the accreditation bid.
Another major concern to the town is the added demand that the expansion will place on Billerica’s sewer system. Jordan acknowledged that the project will increase the facility’s sewer use, but said the facility will not need to exceed the usage allowed under its existing town permit.
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.