For the office of Essex Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr., it is the start of one major building project and the near completion of another.
Last month, contractors at the Essex County Correctional Facility, in Middleton broke ground on an $11 million prisoner intake building. The project, targeted for completion around Christmas, also involves converting the existing intake building to a 24-bed lock-up for female inmates.
Even as that work gets underway, the sheriff’s office is preparing for the opening this summer of a $10 million regional emergency dispatch center on the grounds of the Middleton facility.
The pair of state-funded projects makes this a notable time of growth for the 22-year-old correctional complex, a combined jail and house of correction serving the 34 cities and towns of Essex County.
“We are very happy with what’s happening at our facility and our site,” Cousins, a Newburyport Republican, said of the construction, noting that it comes as work on a new $133.8 million regional vocational school is in full swing nearby on Route 62.
The medium-security Essex County Correctional Facility on Manning Avenue opened in 1991, replacing the antiquated Salem and Lawrence jails. On a recent day, it housed 1,171 inmates, including 673 pretrial, 453 sentenced, and 45 federal inmates, according to Maurice Pratt, an assistant superintendent and the spokesman for the sheriff’s department.
The sheriff also oversees two minimum-security facilities, the Lawrence Correctional Alternative Center, and the Women in Transition Center, in Salisbury, as well as three “community corrections centers” for day reporting for people on probation and parole; and three civil process offices.
Cousins noted that like many other jails, the Middleton facility – originally designed for 550 inmates – is overcrowded. While neither project addresses that problem, he said he is trying to do so by emphasizing initiatives – such as the electronic bracelet monitoring program – that allow inmates to more speedily reenter and reintegrate into society.
The 17,000-square-foot intake, or “regional support services” building, is being constructed on part of the existing parking lot. The 8,000-square-foot Essex County Regional Emergency Communications Center, which is fully built and is now being outfitted, is on the site of a former parking lot.
The new intake building will be significantly more spacious than the current cramped building, and will offer up-to-date equipment, according to Cousins.
“We are really excited about it,” Cousins said, noting that the project was recommended in a master plan for the facility.
He said the new center will offer larger and improved facilities for the various intake functions, including a secure storage area for inmate property, a dedicated space for bail posting, and areas for fingerprinting and facial recognition, medical evaluation, and record keeping.
Cousins said the intake center will employ an “open booking” design in which most inmates will await booking in an open seating area similar to a hospital emergency room.
“There will be holding cells clearly for people who are disruptive, but the majority of people will be flowing and out,” he said.
Unlike the present building, the new one will have an enclosed sally port, which Cousins said will make it safer and more efficient for police cruisers and vans to discharge and pick up inmates.
The women’s jail will provide the department with its only housing for female inmates outside of the 24 beds in the Women in Transition Center, which houses nonviolent offenders with limited criminal history.
All of the county’s other female inmates are housed now at the state prison in Framingham. Cousins said that will remain largely the case for pretrial detainees, but once the new jail opens, the department can keep them in Middleton the night before their court dates, making it easier to get them to court in the morning.
He said sentenced female inmates, meanwhile, will be able to go directly to Middleton to be evaluated for possible placement in the Salisbury center. He said that would save time and money, since inmates now are all sent directly to Framingham for evaluation. The state prison will continue to incarcerate the female inmates not placed in Salisbury.
The dispatch center will provide around-the-clock police, fire, and ambulance dispatching for six member communities: Amesbury, Beverly, Essex, Middleton, Topsfield, and Wenham. Officials expect other Essex County communities will join at a later date.
Through an agreement with the state’s 911 Department now being finalized, the dispatching center will also answer all 911 wireless calls made within the county, according to the center’s director, Thomas K. Dubas.
When the Middleton center receives a 911 call originating from a nonmember community, it will transfer the call to the local police or fire department. If the call comes from a member community, the center will perform its regular dispatch.
The sheriff will oversee the center with policies set by fire, police, and financial advisory boards composed of officials from the member communities.
The center is expected to begin dispatching for two or three of the centers by July 1, and the remaining communities within 30 to 45 days of that time, according to Dubas. He said the center will start handling wireless calls about September.
Essex Police Chief Peter Silva, the president of the Essex County Police Chiefs Association, said he is “thrilled to see the progress the sheriff is making,” in realizing the two projects.
He expressed enthusiasm for the regional dispatch center, saying “it is really going to be changing the climate of how we are doing dispatching and will provide a model for regional collaboration.
“I think we are going to be providing a much better product and saving money at the same time,” said Silva.