Many inmates at the maximum security prison in Shirley may soon have to double up in their cells, under a plan by the state Department of Correction to contend with the highest inmate count in 20 years.
Department spokeswoman Diane Wiffin confirmed that the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center would become the only maximum security facility in the state to have double-bunking, but she would not specify how many beds are being added or when inmates will be moved in together.
Steve Kenneway, president of the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, said the corrections commissioner told him that the agency is installing 500 beds. That would increase the inmate count by 40 percent to 50 percent.
Inmates at the Shirley prison, who sometimes spend more than 20 hours a day in their cells, protested the installation of additional beds last week. On Sept. 29, a group of about 50 prisoners took over the dining hall from 6 to 9:30 p.m., ripping a door off at least one refrigeration unit and turning broomsticks and mop handles into weapons, Kenneway said. According to the Department of Correction, no one was injured in the incident.
“What we witnessed there was a peaceful demonstration, a sit-in if you will,” Kenneway said. “I don’t think we’ll be as lucky next time.”
Leslie Walker, executive director of the not-for-profit Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, said her office received dozens of letters and phone calls from prisoners threatening to protest double bunking. (She could not share the prisoners’ letters with the newspaper without their permission.)
“That type of confinement is difficult on anyone, but it’s especially difficult if you have two people in a small cell,” she said. “There are people who have had single cells for 20 and 30 years, and they are not looking forward to sharing a very small space.”
Across the country, double-celling has been allowed since 1981, when the US Supreme Court ruled that state prisons can house two inmates in a cell designed for one.
Still, Kenneway argues that putting two Souza-Baranowski prisoners, including murderers, mass murderers, child murderers, rapists, and pedophiles, into the same cell will lead to an increase in violence.
“There are some inmates out there who are going to make a choice whether to accept a roommate or kill their roommate. That’s not an exaggeration,” he said. “There are going to be not just fights and stabbings; there may be murders.”
This is a fear that has come up in inmates’ letters, Walker said.
“There are many prisoners at Souza-Baranowski who are mentally ill – who are not violent but vulnerable – and they are terrified of the potential for violence this will create,” she said.
Double-bunking at maximum security facilities is done in many other states and by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
In New York, 5,233 inmates, or about 20 percent of all maximum security prisoners, are sharing a cell, said Linda Foglia, a spokeswoman for the New York Department of Correctional Services. Connecticut has double-celled inmates at maximum security prisons for as long as the prison system existed, according to Andrius Banevicius, a spokesman for that state’s Department of Correction.
In California, some inmates in maximum security prisons are double-celled, although not those on death row, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“There have been instances where two cellmates got into fights and unfortunately we had some in-cell homicides as well,” she said.
“You just have to be very careful about which two inmates you put in a cell.”
MCI-Cedar Junction, a maximum security prison in South Walpole, installed bunk beds in the early 1990s, but never implemented double-celling because the Correction Officers Union challenged the plan, Kenneway said. Now some Cedar Junction inmates are being told by prison staff that they will be moved to Souza-Baranowski once double bunks are in place there, according to Walker.
The correction officers union is negotiating with the prison’s management on double-bunking at the Souza-Baranowski facility. Kenneway says staffing might become an issue because double bunking would “double the workload for every correctional officer,” but he said the department also needs to figure out how to take care of the additional prisoners.
“How are you going to feed this many more inmates? How are you going to provide recreation and showers?” he asked. “They have no answers.”
The next meeting between the Department of Correction and the correction officers union is scheduled for Thursday, Wiffin said.