What to do with the state’s half-empty prison system

It's time to double down on reforms that are yielding results

MASSACHUSETTS IS POCKMARKED by a web of correctional facilities, 484 buildings in total with nearly 10 million square feet of space among them. Picture the Hancock, the Pru, the Boston Convention Center, the Hynes Convention Center, the DCU Center, and the MassMutual Center. Together, these cavernous buildings couldn’t hold half of the space contained in our prisons and jails.   

This mountain of carceral real estate is the product of tough on crime laws, which tripled Massachusetts’s incarceration rate between the 1980s and 2000s. In recent years, crime prevention, treatment, and other level-headed approaches to public safety have taken hold. These evidence-based practices are keeping thousands of people out of prison each year. As a result, correctional facilities across the state now sit half-empty. Yet the cost of maintaining and operating them keeps rising—a year at a state prison is approaching $100,000, about $25,000 more than a year at Harvard.  

In 2019, the Legislature formed the Special Commission on Correctional Funding to look at how Massachusetts completes its break with tough on crime policies from a facilities standpoint. The panel recently issued a long-awaited report 

For the first time, the public can see the number of housing units within each building, the various functions they serve (e.g., mental health treatment), how many beds they contain, and the number of inmates currently occupying them. This information is invaluable because closing units is the key to reducing marginal costs as inmate populations fall. At present, most units continue to operate at half of their capacity. With the pandemic subsiding and the social distancing of inmates no longer necessary, two considerations will dictate how many units should close. 

The first is whether operating below capacity significantly benefits inmate well-being and staff safety. During the crowded tough on crime days, some units were built to hold more beds than ideal. Filling these units to capacity simply to allow others to close would be counterproductive.  

The second major factor is the need for specialized units. In recent years, agencies have responded to calls for more rehabilitation with separate housing units for young adults, veterans, inmates with serious mental illness, and those receiving medication-assisted treatment for addiction. While segmentation may produce significant benefits, the proliferation of specialized units produces large inefficiencies from a space perspective. There are also significant staffing inefficiencies given the program managers and clinicians that these units require.   

As an interim recommendation, the commission suggests facilities should provide regular updates on the number of inmates in each housing unit. This is a logical first step to pinpoint opportunities for consolidation. However, reducing the footprint of the state’s corrections system will require more than just transparent reporting. The next governor must provide executive leadership. 

Voters concerned about the intersection of criminal justice and behavioral health must press candidates to describe how they would transform these systems. Reforms intended to keep individuals with severe mental illness and substance use disorders out of prisons and jails are inadvertently leaving many of them on the streets without adequate care. So long as the Commonwealth continues to invest in correctional facilities that are no longer needed, Massachusetts will have more difficulty finding money to build and maintain residential treatment facilities outside of the criminal justice system. This makes the will to close surplus correctional facilities a vital qualification for any leader pledging to solve the sorts of problems manifested at Mass. and Cass in Boston.   

Executive leadership is also required to ensure that every correctional facility in Massachusetts provides quality recidivism reduction services. The commission found that state and county correctional agencies offer dozens of programs on paper. However, there is little information to determine how these offerings align with the criminogenic risks and needs of inmates, how many inmates receive them, and the impact of these programs on recidivism. This finding is deeply troubling because data are the lifeblood of evidence-based practice. Collecting information to troubleshoot and continuously improve is particularly vital in correctional agencies, where service quality has life and death implications for the inmates, agency staff, and the general public. 

To ensure that all inmates return to our communities positioned for success, the commission suggested the Commonwealth consider a new office to oversee the administration of recidivism reduction programs in correctional facilities statewide. While this may sound like bloated bureaucracy, a centralized office could produce real savings by consolidating program management functions, increasing both efficiency and performance. For this to occur, the next governor must make a strong commitment to advancing evidence-based correctional practices across the state.  

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

With the Legislature’s leadership, Massachusetts has made considerable progress correcting course on failed tough on crime policies. Prison populations have fallen sharply. Despite the extreme stress imposed by the pandemic, crime remains low, largely due to these reforms and significant investments that the Legislature has made in housing, job training, and community health. The commission’s report provides the insight needed to double down on what’s working. All that’s required now is a new governor with the courage and conviction to take the reins. 

Ben Forman is the research director of MassINC, the nonprofit research organization that is also the corporate parent of  CommonWealth. He served as a member of the Special Commission on Correctional Funding.