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A prerelease center for female inmates opens in Billerica

The building at the Billerica Jail and House of Correction that is being used as a prerelease center for female inmates.
The building at the Billerica Jail and House of Correction that is being used as a prerelease center for female inmates.Middlesex Sheriff's office

In a milestone moment in its history, the Middlesex Sheriff’s office is directly overseeing female inmates for the first time in more than half a century.

The Middlesex Jail and House of Correction in Billerica recently opened a pre-release center for female inmates, a residential-style building that provides selected incarcerated women specialized services and access to family members to prepare them for eventual return to the community.

The center will accommodate up to 20 inmates serving a county sentence (2.5 years or under) or a state sentence (more than 2.5 years). The Massachusetts Department of Correction will select inmates for the program from among those incarcerated at MCI Framingham.

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In addition to Middlesex County, sentenced inmates from six other counties incarcerated at MCI Framingham are eligible for the program, but it is expected most will reside in Middlesex County after their release.

“I’m really excited,” said Jillian Ketchen, who is program director of the sheriff’s office and oversees the pre-release center. “What’s great about this center is it’s really individualized. Each of the women will get a re-entry plan really tailored to their specific needs.”

The Middlesex sheriff’s office has not supervised female inmates since a women’s unit in the then county jail in Cambridge closed in the mid-1960s, according to Kevin Maccioli, a spokesman for the office. The Billerica facility today houses all the county’s approximately 550 male inmates.

On March 1, the first 11 inmates were transported to the pre-release center from a women’s minimum-security/pre-release unit on the campus of MCI-Framingham, the facility which has historically housed many of the state’s female inmates, including those from Middlesex.

Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian said the initiative, funded through his operating budget, builds on his office’s ongoing efforts to better serve female inmates from Middlesex County.

“It’s really a matter of equity,” he said. “When I became sheriff in 2011, our female inmates would go to MCI Framingham without even passing through our custody except for transportation….We had no connection with them” or ability to offer them the same services and opportunities afforded male inmates.

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Koutoujian said that in about 2012 he began sending staff to meet with Middlesex inmates at MCI Framingham to evaluate them for possible release through the county’s electronic monitoring program and to offer certain services, including counseling to help prepare them for post-incarceration.

The pre-release center, which the sheriff’s office was able to accommodate on the Billerica campus due to recent declines in its male inmate population, offers a homey environment. Women live in one- and two-person bedrooms rather than cells, and share access to a kitchen and a day room. For safety during COVID-19, all have to wear masks .

Each inmate receives services based on her specific needs, from substance abuse to mental and physical health. And in what officials say is key to the program, each has the chance to meet with family members in the day room, which is outfitted with toys and books.

“For incarcerated women, family reunification is a crucial element to successful re-entry,” Koutoujian said, noting that female inmates are far more likely than male inmates to be primary caregivers to children in their families.

In preparation for the opening, the center building received new painting, flooring, lighting, furniture, and technology. An outreach coordinator was appointed to work with families. And 80 correctional officers received voluntary training on working with female inmates, a contingent of whom are now assigned to the unit.

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Department of Corrections Commissioner Carol Mici in a statement said she welcomes the new partnership with Koutoujian, adding that a tour of the center “accelerated my enthusiasm” for the initiative.

“I am further encouraged knowing that the program fully meets the Department of Correction’s mission to provide care and programming in preparation for successful reentry into the community,” Mici said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

A common area inside the Middlesex Sheriff's Office's new women's prerelease center will be used for family visits, meetings, and other activities.
A common area inside the Middlesex Sheriff's Office's new women's prerelease center will be used for family visits, meetings, and other activities.Middlesex Sheriff's office