We Just Don't Have Enough Beds

There are, in Massachusetts, 11,800 inmates in our state correctional facilities. Another 12,300 in our county houses of correction.

The cost? Some $20,000 a year per inmate in our county jails, $42,000 for maximum security in our state prisons, and around $80,000 for incarceration in state hospitals. Or, an average of $30,677 per year per inmate. Or, $84.05 a day.

And, we don't have enough beds. We are, according to Michael Maloney, Commissioner for the Department of Corrections, at 125 percent of capacity. Because we just opened a new facility, that's the best it's been in a decade.

Maloney predicts that overcrowding will be back up to 153 percent of capacity by 2004. We need at least two more prisons.

That's why we had to send 300 prisoners to Texas---the Lone Star State has room, and we don't.

But that's just the beginning of problems in our state's public safety sector, according to the testimony that I heard in a Ways and Means hearing just this past Wednesday.

Some examples:

Our prison officials are dealing with some 1,800 gang members and 300 high escape risks (they're violent enough and have the contacts in the community to be successful), in just the state facilities alone.

Outside the walls, we have 50,000 on parole.

Many prisoners need education and job training. They're young--30 is the median age of offenders, even younger if you exclude Superior Court actions. These prisoners need treatment for violence and anger, job skills, and parenting, as well.

At least 80 percent of District Court cases involve substance abuse.

Perhaps that is the biggest concern. Substance abuse. Which means prisoners have to have treatment, counseling, testing. After they've been caught and convicted. And, hopefully, when they're back on the streets after release.

Maloney says we have zero tolerance for drug abuse inside the walls. He points to the statistics--of 77,000 drug tests last year, only 210 came up positive. "So, we're pretty sure our inmates are basically drug free," he added.

When prisoners are released, without jobs, without education, back into the society where they got into trouble previously, it's pretty easy to get into trouble again unless they're monitored and mentored. And the state is beginning to realize that post-incarceration services are as important as those available inside the walls.

When they're out. Think about that phrase, and think about this fact. Former inmates make up a large percentage of the people in the state's homeless and emergency shelters, because 20 to 25 percent of released inmates have no where to go. In fact, last year, 1,111 inmates literally went directly from the Department of Correction to a shelter.

I could go on. The day's testimony was fascinating, revealing, interesting, depressing. We have more and more and more criminals among us. With drugs being the beginning cause of most of the crime.

We need more services, we need more facilities. And, we're going to have to pay for them.

As the state's new Secretary of Public Safety, Jane Perlov, said, "Taking people off the street stops crime. But we don't have enough beds."

Maloney agreed, "Reality is, we need beds--2,000 more today."

And Judge Barbara Dortch-Okara, Chief Justice for Administration and Management, Massachusetts Trial Court, also agreed, adding, "It's a never-ending need. We will build more prisons and people will be there to fill them."

It's an overwhelming problem, but we're working on it. During the day of testimony, we heard that it takes a concerted effort in a lot of areas--education, courts, corrections,health, mental health, housing, parole, probation, and counseling. We want to salvage as many inmates as possible, so that they can lead productive lives.

But, we also want sure and swift punishment for crime. We want to protect our citizens from our criminals.

We just have to figure out how to do it.

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