If ever there was a win-win-win deal for state taxpayers, prison reform advocates, and potentially for housing advocates as well, it’s the proposed closing of the state’s medium-security prison at Concord and the potential reuse of its 62-acre site on Route 2.
The aging facility — parts of the original structure opened in 1878 — is running at about 50 percent of capacity, housing some 300 men.
In fact, the little-told good news story is that the state’s prison population is at its lowest in 35 years, according to the Department of Correction. That’s not surprising given Massachusetts ranks among the lowest in the nation in its rate of incarceration. A decade ago the state prison population stood at more than 11,000. Today that figure hovers at around 6,000.
So some of the sprawling facilities that once housed all of those people behind towering granite walls and barbed wire fencing on enormous amounts of acreage are now white elephants — costly to staff and to maintain and even more expensive to upgrade.
State officials put the annual operating costs for Concord at $16 million to run a half-empty facility and another $190 million in potential capital expenditures needed to bring its heating and cooling systems up to speed and make up for decades of deferred maintenance.
So as part of her budget proposal, Governor Maura Healey announced the closure of Concord by this summer — which coincides with the end of the state’s fiscal year — and the transfer of staff and those currently incarcerated there to other facilities.
The potential for the prison site situated on the dreaded Route 2 Rotary is enormous. For starters it should spur discussion of a reconfiguration of one of the state’s most fearsome traffic circles.
But beyond that, “It’s perfect for housing,” state Senator Mike Barrett, whose district includes Concord, told the Globe editorial board. “It’s walkable to West Concord [center]” and its train station. “It could be a whole new neighborhood.”
Healey, in announcing her intention to shutter the prison, wasn’t specific about a future plan.
“The [lieutenant governor] and I have talked for a long time about identifying state properties that we could repurpose and use for housing, for other things,” she said.
“We just know that the purpose that it’s being used for right now doesn’t really right-size to the moment,” she added, “or the needs that we face.”
Healey’s plan, as included in an outside section of her budget, would transfer the property to the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance.
“I would like to see the state retain a strong planning role,” Barrett said, pointing to the dismal fate of the Fernald School property in Waltham, also in his district, as an example of what can happen when the state totally relinquishes control of state land.
But first, of course, the governor will have to win legislative approval to transfer the land once the facility is emptied.
Last June DOC officials announced the final closure of MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole, completing the transfer of more than 500 of those incarcerated there ahead of the two-year timetable — another concession to decreasing prison populations and aging buildings. That prison was running at 68 percent of capacity at the time the closure plan was announced in 2022. However, the departing Baker administration never did deal with the legal nicety of actually getting legislative approval to transfer the property once it was vacated.
DOC officials reported that “no decision has been made in regarding the future of that property.”
But it certainly gives the Healey administration yet another opportunity to reuse acreage that cries out for redevelopment.
Barrett points to Metropolitan State Hospital as an example of the possibilities. The former psychiatric hospital closed in 1992 but remained largely abandoned until 2007, when sections of it located in Lexington (some parts of the old hospital grounds are in Waltham) were redeveloped for a 387-unit apartment complex and some of its original buildings repurposed as a cable TV station, fitness center, and auditorium.
Closing prisons that have outlived their usefulness by virtue of their aging infrastructure and changes in the nature of modern correctional systems makes good sense. Consolidation should — if properly managed — mean better access to programming for those incarcerated and economies of scale for the system as a whole.
But that’s just the beginning. The state has a very mixed record of making use of valuable properties in its portfolio. At this point in its history — with a housing crisis nipping at our heels — there is no time to lose in putting those shuttered prison sites to a far better use.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.