Prisoners and prison guards are not the only ones who will be affected when the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center begins double-bunking inmates and moving some 400 additional inmates into the maximum security facility.
Ambulance crews in the towns of Shirley and Lancaster – which are already being called to the prison more often than before – are concerned that the expansion of the prison population will further tax their resources.
In Shirley, which answers calls at the minimum and medium security sections of the prison, ambulance director Mike Detillion said that ambulance runs probably doubled since last year. Shirley’s ambulance currently drives to the prison once or twice a week, he said.
Despite having a contract with Medstar, a private ambulance company based in Leominster, prison officials still call Shirley for serious medical emergencies because the town is “so close,” Detillion said.
To make matters worse, half of Shirley’s firefighters, who also served as emergency medical technicians, were let go this year due to budget cuts. Shirley now has only an on-call ambulance crew – and every time the ambulance drives to the prison, it gets tied up for approximately two hours as it goes through prison security inspections, Detillion said.
“If there is an increase in [the prison] population, you can’t abuse municipal ambulance service, because we have to be responsive to our own population,” he said.
In neighboring Lancaster, where the maximum security part of the prison is located, the ambulance makes the 6-mile trek to the prison eight to 10 times a month, said ambulance captain Everett Moody. When this happens, Lancaster’s only ambulance gets tied up for at least two hours and the town has to rely on mutual aid if a resident has a medical emergency, he said.
Moody said he noticed an increase in the number of ambulance calls to the prison in the last two months, and is concerned that the volume of calls – which currently account for about a third of all Lancaster’s ambulance runs – will increase.
“A lot of them are repeat people who are doing the same thing to themselves over and over. They cut themselves, they slash their wrists, [with] whatever they can get a hold of,” said Kathy Lamb, an emergency medical technician on Lancaster’s ambulance. “We were there yesterday, we were there the day before.”
Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, a nonprofit that receives calls and letters from prisoners, said the recent increase in calls for ambulances to the maximum security prison was probably the result of a new mental health unit that opened there last winter. Four prisoners with mental health problems were moved into this unit in May and six more arrived last month, Walker said.
“They are seriously mentally ill and some have a history of self-abusive behavior. They cut themselves,” Walker said, adding that she knew of two prisoners who attempted suicide recently and had to be taken to hospitals.
Lamb, who also answers the phones at the Lancaster selectmen’s and town manager’s office, pointed out that Lancaster’s ambulance is an on-call department.
“So people are leaving their regular jobs to respond to these calls,” she said. “When there is a call, I respond from work.”
According to Diane Wiffin, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, there are no issues with the ambulance.
“We only use the town service for emergency calls. All other ambulance service is by a contract provider,” Wiffin wrote in an e-mail.
The Department of Corrections reimburses Lancaster $49,000 annually for hosting a maximum security prison, while Shirley collected $162,000 in mitigation funds this year, according to town administrator Kyle Keady. Keady said the town will not necessarily receive more mitigation money next year – even if the prison population goes up. This is because the amount is determined not on the absolute number of prisoners at MCI-Shirley, but on percentage of state’s prisoners that are housed in Shirley, he said.
In Lancaster, town manager Orlando Pacheco said $49,000 is not sufficient to cover the costs the town incurs for hosting a prison, while the reimbursement for ambulance calls in “no way covers costs.”
Prison officials met with the Shirley Board of Selectmen last month to discuss how the expansion of the prison population will affect the town, but they have not, as of yet, had the same conversation with Lancaster.
He said if the maximum security prison’s population increases, most likely the ambulance calls will also go up. “We’d be spending more and taking in less. It will continue to cost us more money,” Pacheco said.
And, he added, having the town’s only ambulance tied up at the prison could create a dangerous situation for residents who may have to wait as long as 15 minutes for an ambulance from another town.
“The prison can take the ambulance out of service for hours at a time, and it’s very dangerous to respond to a call during a shift change [when] the area is shut down and we can’t get the ambulance out,” he said.