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Prisons facing $100m in cuts

Fiscal scenario may prompt closings, layoffs

By Jonathan Saltzman and Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / September 11, 2009

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Under increasing financial pressure, the state’s prison system is weighing close to $100 million in budget cuts that could force widescale layoffs and the closure of several facilites at a time of growing fears over inmate overcrowding.

Harold W. Clarke, commissioner of the Department of Correction, outlined the bleak fiscal scenario, and its potentially drastic consequences, at a monthly meeting yesterday between top prison managers and union leaders, according to Steve Kenneway, president of the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union. Clarke told union officials the state is considering closing as many as four prisons and laying off 300 employees, Kenneway said.

“Obviously, we’re stunned that the fiscal situation is so egregious that we may be looking at the closure of several facilities in Massachusetts,’’ Kenneway said. “We believe that public safety is a core mission for Massachusetts government. Period. We can’t let bad people out on the street.’’

The Patrick administration expects to make preliminary decisions on closings and layoffs next month, he said.

The prospect of multiple prison closings alarmed critics who say the system is already dangerously overburdened.

“You have prisoners locked in a cell together for 19 hours a day, with a resultant increase in violence,’’ said Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, which provides legal services to inmates. “It’s a mistake that could prove tragic.’’

Clarke’s spokesman, Terrel Harris, said Clarke was speaking broadly about the potential scope of budget cuts, and the department has no current plans to close prisons or lay off correctional workers. It is too early to make firm budget plans, he said.

But if projections hold true, the system would lose nearly $100 million in funding over the next two years, a shortfall that would require drastic spending cuts.

“If the forecasts are as bad as they look, we’d lose about what it costs to run four prisons,’’ Harris said. “We’re not looking at anything specific. We are looking at every possibility we can to try and keep everything going.’’

The state’s 17 prisons are well over capacity, with their population more than tripling over the past two decades to over 11,000.

In July, a riot at the Middlesex Jail, a county facility in Cambridge at more than double its capacity, shone a harsh light on the problem, and has intensified lobbying for relaxed minimum sentences, accelerated parole reviews, and more liberal use of home confinements.

With the state no longer able to afford to build facilities, such measures will be vital to curbing the prison population, supporters said.

In the face of a worsening financial crisis, the prison system also plans to cancel in-service training for correction officers and shelve training for 150 recruits this fall.

In November, it will also close a Bridgewater substance abuse center that treats more than 1,500 men each year who have been civilly committed by the courts.

The men will be transferred to facilities run by the Department of Public Health, said Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Correction.

State Senator Jennifer L. Flanagan and state Representative Liz Malia, cochairwomen of the Legislature’s joint committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said they were “deeply disappointed’’ by the closure.

“Facilities such as [the center] are vital because individuals are given the opportunity to begin their road to recovery, instead of becoming a part of the criminal justice system, which only increases the cost to our state’s taxpayers,’’ the lawmakers said in a statement. “Those who do not receive services that they desperately need are far more likely to criminally offend and never begin their recovery, and we find that unacceptable.’’

Many other states are grappling with overcrowded prisons. Last week, California officials asked the US Supreme Court to block a lower court order to come up with a plan to remove some 40,000 inmates from the prisons.

The lower court ruled that the state’s prisons are so crowded they can no longer provide inmates with adequate medical care.

According to Kenneway, the Massachusetts prison system expects to lose $35 million from its budget this fiscal year and as much as $63 million more next year, although those estimates are subject to change.

The union has strongly opposed previous steps Clarke has taken to deal with the rising prison population, including double-bunking inmates at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley earlier this year.

If four prisons closed, he said, that would result in more double-bunking or the release of inmates onto the streets.

“There’s no place left to put inmates,’’ he said. “They’re going to force-feed a reentry program that clearly wasn’t supposed to be a reentry program.’’