Two Mass. Prisons May Close

By Adam Reilly

Jan. 26, 2011 (Updated Jan. 27)

BOSTON — Two state prisons may be on the chopping block.

You'd expect the prospective that to be big news, but that possibility leaked out Wednesday in remarkably low-key fashion. After Gov. Deval Patrick rolled out his budget proposal for the 2012 fiscal year, Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez held his own debriefing for the press. He mentioned, in passing, that the governor's push for sentencing reform would "mitigate the impact" of two coming prison shut-downs.

Eyebrows went up. Pressed for details, Gonzalez said the two facilities hadn't yet been determined — and then it was back to the budget.

Later this afternoon, Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan filled me in a bit more. There is a plan to close two prisons, she said, but only if sentencing reform isn't passed. 

The reform in question would eliminate mandatory minimums and grant earlier parole for certain non-violent drug offenders.

"If we don't get reform," Heffernan said, "what will happen is, prisoners won't be released. We'll be required to become more overcrowded in the Department of Corrections."

Heffernan says that would force the closure of two prisons. "We wouldn't be able to afford to run the system with the same number of prisons and the same number of people in place without sentencing reform," Heffernan said.

It's worth pointing out that there's some tension between Gonzalez's and Heffernan's characterizations of this plan. Gonzalez suggested that prison closures and sentencing reform go hand in hand: The latter makes the former possible. But Heffernan cast closure as a desperate alternative to sentencing reform.

That's not the only confusing piece of this story. Without sentencing reform, the state's prisons will remain overcrowded -- and closure would make that problem even worse. I asked Heffernan if the closure plan was intended, in part, to push the system to a crisis point if the administration's sentencing-reform recommendations aren't heeded. She rejected the idea.

"We are not going to actively push things to a crisis point," Heffernan replied. "I don't mean to be playing brinksmanship either. This is a way to open up a conversation about general corrections reform and sentencing reform.

Update: The Executive Office of Public Safety sent WGBH the following statement:

Public safety remains a top priority of the Administration, and the budget filed today is a balanced and fiscally responsible plan that reflects that commitment. Due to unprecedented fiscal challenges, the Administration was forced to make difficult choices in this budget proposal, including the potential closure of two state prisons.

Governor Patrick has proposed several reforms to the state’s criminal justice system and sentencing laws that will help address issues like overcrowding in our prisons, and looks forward to working with our legislative partnership to implement these critical reforms.

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