Work has resumed on the 500-bed expansion of the Middlesex House of Correction in Billerica, two weeks after workers discovered a crack in a concrete column that temporarily put the brakes on the $37 million project.
The expansion will add a two-story concrete pod with 256 beds and a single-story dormitory with 240 beds to the 84-year-old facility. State officials say the expansion is temporary and needed to relocate nearly 500 pre-sentence detainees from the overcrowded Middlesex Jail in East Cambridge, while the state seeks to finance and develop a new combined court and jail complex in southern Middlesex County.
On Dec. 20, the expansion project was halted after workers found a crack in one of the newly built columns in the dormitory. The discovery prompted a stop-work order by the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety until the columns could be shored up. The order was partially lifted after the site was reinspected on Christmas Eve, state officials said.
“Some workers put propane heaters next to one of the recently poured concrete columns and it cracked,” said Scott Jordan, undersecretary for the state’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance, which is overseeing the expansion. “It was agreed that we should stop work until the site was determined to be safe.”
Jordan said the delay won’t stop the project’s scheduled completion this spring.
“Our goal is to complete the project in April and have the county sheriff’s office begin moving jail detainees into the facility as soon as possible,” he said.
State corrections officials are under a court order to reduce overcrowding in the Cambridge jail, located on the top floors of the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse. The maximum-security jail houses many of the county’s pretrial detainees and was designed for a capacity of 160 inmates, but has exceeded 400 at times.
For several years, the jail has been the only occupant of the 22-story building. The county’s superior and Cambridge district courts, along with the district attorney’s and sheriff’s offices, were relocated to leased spaces years ago because of asbestos contamination and other issues. The state is planning to sell the building, the proceeds of which would go toward the cost of a new complex.
Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian said he is pushing for a new jail and courthouse complex to be built “as soon as possible.” He said taking pretrial detainees and inmates from Billerica to courthouses across the county will strain his budget while creating logistical and security concerns.
“This will have major ripple effects throughout the court system,” he said. “But the security issue is my biggest concern. The weakest link in our chain of security are those times when inmates and detainees are outside the walls of our facilities.”
Koutoujian said the number of beds in the Billerica jail — a minimum-security facility that houses inmates with sentences up to 2½ years — will increase to about 1,500 once the expansion is finished. Many of the detainees will have to be transported during rush hours to courts mostly in the southern part of the county, he said.
Legislation filed over the summer by state Senator Ken Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat, calls for creation of a special commission to identify potential sites for a new jail/courthouse complex. The bill has bipartisan support, including the backing of state Representative Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, in the House.
Jordan said the state has earmarked funds for a study on the construction of a new complex, but estimates it would take at least five years to build it. “The work we need to do — find a site, design it, build it — is going to take time,” he said.
Billerica officials opposed the expansion at the Treble Cove Road complex, citing the increased demands on water, sewer, and other already strained municipal services. They have complained that the state, which doesn’t pay property taxes on the facility, kept them largely in the dark about the project until recently.
Last month, however, the Board of Selectmen agreed to a package of concessions from the state, including more than $4 million for infrastructure upgrades. State officials also have agreed to support legislation to remove the word “Billerica” from all the signs at the Middlesex House of Correction.
In exchange, town officials agreed to drop their appeal of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s decision to grant an expanded permit for increased sewer capacity.
Town officials had asked the Department of Environmental Protection to deny the proposed sewer permit, arguing in a July letter that the additional demand “simply cannot be accommodated” in a town where roughly 30 percent of residents are still on septic systems.