Criminal capacity

gov. deval patrick wants to close two prisons this year to save money, but the Legislature isn’t enthusiastic about the idea, partly because of fears about violence stemming from cramming too many prisoners into tight spaces.

According to 2009 data from the US Department of Justice, Massachusetts has one of the 10 most overcrowded prison systems in the country. The system is operating at 140 percent of its capacity, with 11,300 inmates living in prisons originally designed to hold just under 8,000.

North Carolina has the most overcrowded prisons in the country, with facilities operating at 397 percent of planned design capacity. Mississippi’s prisons are the least crowded, with just 50 percent of prison beds in use.

The problem with the Justice Department numbers is that states use different yardsticks to measure overcrowding. States like Massachusetts compare inmate population to the designed capacity of the prisons. Others compare the inmate population to prison square footage or to the amount of staff, programs, and services offered. The Justice Department data don’t distinguish among the three approaches.

Patrick administration officials have not publicly identified the prisons targeted for closure, but Terrel Harris, the spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, says officials are confident they can accommodate more inmates at fewer facilities without creating safety or security problems.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

Harris says the Patrick administration is also eyeing sentencing reform so fewer nonviolent criminals end up in prison in the first place.

 “We have proposed several reforms to the state’s criminal justice system and sentencing laws that will help address issues like overcrowding in our prisons,” Harris says.

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