State preparing to close down Walpole prison

Systemwide, inmate count at lowest level in 35 years; incarceration rate lowest in nation

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE OFFICIALS plan to wind down operations at MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole, one of the state’s oldest correctional facilities.

The Department of Correction on Thursday announced a two-year, phased plan to “suspend housing operations” at the maximum-security prison, which is currently operating at 68 percent capacity with about 525 inmates.

The agency cited “decreased housing needs and the aging facility’s exorbitant maintenance costs.” The prison opened in 1955, and officials have identified nearly $30 million in needed repairs, including electrical upgrades estimated to cost $22 million.

The decision, which comes with the state’s prison population at its lowest level in 35 years, also “aligns with the Department’s commitment to eliminate restrictive housing and reform its approach to discipline,” according to the agency, which said it had been scrutinizing cost-saving opportunities.

The first phase of the plan will start in 60 to 90 days with the relocation of the reception and diagnostic center to Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster. The center is where newly incarcerated men are evaluated for security classification and await transfer to the appropriate facility.

The prison also hosts two units for what the agency describes as the “most serious security concerns” — the Department Disciplinary Unit  and the Behavioral Management Unit. Plans call for those two units to continue operating until 2024 “while the Department identifies a suitable alternative for each population’s very specific programming, services, and security needs.”

During phase two, inmates living in the Behavioral Management Unit will be relocated to units in other state facilities. In phase three, the agency says, the department will dissolve the Department Disciplinary Unit and relocate inmates, an approach that DOC say aligns with its ongoing three-year process to reform its approach to discipline.

The agency said annual Vera Institute for Justice reports from 2017 through 2020 found that Massachusetts’ incarceration rate was the lowest in the nation, “decreasing by over 2,000 during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a record low of nearly 6,000 incarcerated people.”

“DOC remains committed to stewarding taxpayer resources responsibly and fulfilling our rehabilitation-focused mission,” DOC Commissioner Carol Mici said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “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.”

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Public Safety and Security Secretary Terrence Reidy said successful reentry programs and criminal justice reforms played a role in facility decisions.

“The fruit of that work — the lowest level of incarceration in decades — was achieved by providing at-risk individuals with pathways to positive life choices, creating new re-entry services, and empowering returning citizens to rebuild their lives in meaningful ways,” Reidy said. “It also 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.”