DiPaola presents jail plans to aldermen
By George P. Hassett
A jail may be coming to the southeastern section of Somerville, in the area surrounding the district courthouse, said city and county officials this week.
Middlesex County Sheriff James V. DiPaola met with the Board of Aldermen Thursday to offer his case for a new jail and discuss the possibility of it coming to Somerville. DiPaola presented a short video, complete with an acoustic guitar soundtrack, detailing the outdated, overcrowded conditions at the Middlesex County jail in East Cambridge.
State officials have toured several sites in the city as possible locations for a new county jail to house prisoners awaiting trial. DiPaola said he needs a new facility because of overcrowding conditions in the East Cambridge jail. The jail houses 370 inmates, but was designed for only 160, he said. The jail occupies floors 17 through 22 of the Middlesex County Courthouse, which is targeted for closing by the end of 2007 to undergo asbestos removal and a $125 million rehabilitation. When the rehabilitation is completed, DiPaola said he will only be allowed to return 110 prisoners to East Cambridge.
Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said he expressed interest in possibly bringing a jail to the city because DiPaola has promised to include a new Public Safety building for city police in his plans.
“It was a case of two elected officials with certain needs working together in an innovative way,” DiPaola said.
The city needs a new police station because the current one is outdated and the subject of a lawsuit alleging it to be a hazardous work environment. In Aug. 2005, nearly 60 people who work at the police station sought legal action as an attempt to get to the bottom of alleged health problems plaguing employees of the building. The suit claims they “were subjected to pro-longed exposures, to chronic damp conditions, and the types of molds that produce toxins as well as other hazardous substances present in their workplace environment.” The case has yet to be resolved.
DiPaola stated his case to the board Thursday and answered questions from individual aldermen at the meeting. He stressed his history of working positively with host communities and assured aldermen the jail would not have a negative impact on Somerville.
“Brownstones across the street from the East Cambridge jail are selling for $1.5 million,” he said.
Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz said building a new jail would not put an end to soaring incarceration rates and this problem could arise again in the future when the latest jail becomes overcrowded.
“I don’t see this problem going away,” she said.
DiPaola said tougher sentencing laws for drunk driving and domestic violence crimes combined with mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug violations have boosted the number of prisoners in the state even as crime rates have gone down. He said he opposed mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and acknowledges “we can’t build our way out of the crime problem,” referring to increasing prisons as a way to combat crime.
DiPaola also said he dramatically increased substance abuse programs in his prisons and takes an “in-depth, holistic” approach to preparing prisoners for their eventual release.
At the meeting, Curtatone said he provided the Department of Capital and Asset Management geographical locations where a new jail could be built. The southeastern part of the city around the Somerville District Courthouse and the industrial areas bordering Boston and Cambridge are the best possible locations, he said.
Although plans for a jail in the city are in the earliest of stages, there is already opposition. State Rep. Carl M. Sciortino, D-Somerville, said he would oppose a new jail in the city and block the funding DiPaola would need from the state legislature. He said he would address the issue of overcrowding by funding more staff in the court system, so case backlog did not force prisoners to wait for trial in jail for up to a year.
Patrolmen’s Union President Jack Leutcher is also opposed to DiPaola’s tentative plans to build a jail in Somerville, that would also serve as a police headquarters. The Patrolmen’s Union helped pay for testing of the current dilapidated police headquarters and supports the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but Leutcher does not want a partnership with DiPaola to be the city’s solution to the issue.
“We’re not on board with DiPaola,” Leutcher said. “He’s only trying to start his own little kingdom here and we don’t trust him. But also as a person who lives here, will a jail make Somerville a better, safer community?”
DiPaola said it was important to him that the Somerville Police retain their own identity if the plan does go through and that all city police and jail facilities will be separate.