With the state’s inmate population at a 35-year low, state officials on Thursday announced plans to shut down the maximum-security prison in Walpole over the next two years, citing the high cost of repairing the facility and a statewide effort to phase out solitary confinement.
The closure marked a milestone for longstanding efforts to reduce incarceration rates, from reforms to the criminal justice system to programs to reduce recidivism. Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said the closure provided “more evidence that criminal justice reform is both necessary and effective. ‘
“Crime rates are decreasing, and prison populations are falling. That is due to years of hard work and an overarching recognition that we cannot jail our way to a safer society,” Benedetti said. “As we move forward, I hope we let existing criminal justice reforms work and continue to follow the evidence: that tough-on-crime policies do nothing but hurt the community and our neighbors.”
The state Department of Correction said in a news release that the prison, known as MCI-Cedar Junction, is operating at 68 percent of capacity, housing about 525 men. Built in 1955, it is one of the state’s oldest correctional facilities and requires nearly $30 million in repairs, officials said.
As part of the process, the state will close the prison’s Department Disciplinary Unit, an isolation ward in which some inmates are locked up for more than 22 hours per day. Prisoners confined there will be relocated and a new site will be found for the Behavioral Management Unit, another ward for inmates who pose “the most serious security concerns.”
Once inmates have been relocated, the department said it expects that “limited functions will continue on-site.”
The state prison system has pointed to an array of reasons for the downward shift in the size of the prison population, ranging from court closings during the coronavirus pandemic to changes in the criminal justice system that kept more nonviolent offenders outside of DOC custody and kept recidivism rates down.
A shrinking prison population “allows us to consolidate the number of operational facilities and renew our focus on delivering effective services to women and men in DOC’s care,” Terrence Reidy, public safety and security secretary, said in a statement.
New services for people leaving prison and opportunities for people who are at risk of going to prison or have been recently set free helped to decrease the inmate population, he said.
During its early years, the prison developed a violent reputation. In 1973, a riot erupted among prisoners who refused to be locked in their cells and several months later, Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to being the Boston Strangler, was murdered there. In 1985, the facility was renamed MCI-Cedar Junction after Walpole residents complained the prison harmed the community’s reputation and organized a contest to select a new name.
The changes will be rolled out over two years, with the opening phase expected to begin in the next several months, the DOC said, when it will relocate its processing center for men entering the prison system to Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, now the state’s main maximum security facility, located in Lancaster. Men currently at MCI-Cedar Junction for intake will complete the process before moving to a different facility, the DOC said.
“DOC remains committed to stewarding taxpayer resources responsibly and fulfilling our rehabilitation-focused mission,” DOC commissioner Carol Mici said in a statement. “This decision, and the subsequent consolidation of resources across fewer locations, allows us to eliminate redundancies and deepen our investments in programming, staffing, and services.”
A group of fewer than 50 men who are considered medium-security inmates and belong to an “operational workforce” will remain in the prison during the first phase of the reorganization, the DOC said.
The prison system said it will continue to operate the Department Disciplinary Unit and the Behavioral Management Unit at the Walpole facility until 2024. There are currently about 70 prisoners in the disciplinary unit and nine inmates in the Behavioral Management Unit, a DOC spokesman said.
During the second phase of the reorganization, prisoners in the Behavioral Management Unit will be moved to another state facility. The third phase calls for dissolving the Department Disciplinary Unit and relocating those inmates.
Closing the disciplinary unit is part of an ongoing effort to reform how the agency disciplines inmates, the DOC said. The agency last year said it was moving to end solitary confinement following an independent review by an outside firm.
The report from Falcon Correctional and Community Services, a Chicago-based consultant, concluded that the “innately punitive culture” of several types of solitary confinement units “minimizes the interests of rehabilitation or positive behavior change.”
In 2020, an investigation by the US attorney’s office found that the DOC did not provide adequate treatment to mentally ill prisoners and subjected prisoners experiencing a mental health crisis to prolonged stays in restrictive housing conditions.
Elizabeth Matos, executive director at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, expressed concerns about Souza-Baranowski becoming the new location of the prisoner intake process.
“It’s not appropriate,” she said. “Souza is a maximum-security facility.” A medium-security prison like MCI-Shirley, Matos said, would be a more suitable setting for processing prisoners.
The DOC said Souza-Baranowski is climate-controlled and more modern than MCI-Cedar Junction. Its living quarters “better reflect those that incarcerated individuals will experience” after new inmates finish the intake process, which takes 60 to 90 days, the DOC said.