SHIRLEY – When a prisoner walked away from the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Shirley during the power outage caused by the Dec. 12 ice storm, it highlighted an ongoing problem at the minimum-security section of the prison – the failure to finish building fences around the inmates’ housing.
Joseph Kacevich, 27, who was serving time for armed robbery and motor vehicle theft, walked away from the facility the evening of Dec. 14, according to Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction.
Kacevich – who had not been located as of Monday, according to Correction Department spokeswoman Cara Savelli – probably took advantage of the darkness when streetlights were out on the nearby roads due to the ice storm, said Enrico Cappucci, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.
The Correction Department began building 8-foot high, chain-link fences around the minimum-security housing units last spring, but has been unable to finish the fences due to lack of funds, Wiffin said.
Fences are up around four of the six minimum-security cottages, and the cottages are staffed by correctional officers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she said.
Wiffin did not say whether Kacevich escaped from an unfenced housing unit. She also did not answer questions about how much money is needed to complete the fences, or how many prisoners are not behind a fence.
Police Chief Paul Thibodeau said he requested that the fences be put up after police and state troopers stopped a naked woman driving a car not far from the prison about a year ago. The woman had been having an intimate encounter with an inmate in a car off the prison property, he said.
“The girl in the car was speeding by the police from that area,” Thibodeau said. “The guards were waiting for [the inmate] and they caught him.”
Town officials, who brought up the issue during a meeting with corrections officials in November, stressed that the fences are needed now because the recently built Apple Orchard Estates housing development is not far from the prison.
Thibodeau said he is happy with the progress that has been made because the Department of Correction “is taking positive steps to remedy the situation.”
“They took the situation very seriously and they increased staff, increased patrols in that area,” he said.
MCI-Shirley includes minimum- and medium-security sections. It is separate from the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski prison nearby.
The minimum-security prison, which was founded in 1972, closed in 2002 due to prison consolidation and reopened again in 2007, because “moving inmates to minimum security is a key component of DOC reentry services,” Wiffin said in an e-mail. Its population has almost doubled from 145 in January 2008 to 277 at the end of November, according to Wiffin, who did not give a reason for the increase.
The issue of fences at minimum-security prisons has come up before. In 1984, when Concord residents, troubled by frequent escapes from the Northeastern Correctional Center, called for building fences, then-superintendent Bob Walsh told the Globe that minimum-security facilities should not have a wall or fence because the goal is to prepare prisoners for life on the outside.
“I don’t think a fence would reduce escapes,” Walsh told the Globe in a July 16, 1984, article.
Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, a nonprofit that assists prisoners, also said it’s unnecessary to have a fence around a minimum-security facility because inmates regularly leave the prison for jobs in the community.
“In a minimum, you’re given a lot of trust. Having a fence around it is pretty silly,” she said.
Minimum-security prisoners, supervised by a guard, have been doing landscaping work in Shirley and Lancaster for years, raking leaves in the cemeteries and parks and mowing the grass, according to selectmen in the two towns.
Despite the guards, a number of prisoners have simply walked away from Shirley’s minimum-security section, a search through newspaper stories from the last 20 years revealed.
In 1994, a convicted murder who was held in minimum security shot a Shirley police officer in the chest when the stolen vehicle he was driving was stopped, and in 1985, a state trooper shot an escaped minimum-security prisoner during a traffic stop on Route 2. Among other escapees from Shirley’s minimum-security prison were the leader of a street gang who terrorized Southeast Asian merchants and a bank robber who was caught nearly a decade after his escape by a woman who recognized him from an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.”
Shirley selectmen said a fence would not necessarily have prevented Kacevich’s escape because minimum-security inmates have many opportunities to walk away. “Whether the fence is there or not, I’m not certain the fence would have prevented the escape,” said Selectman Andy Deveau.
Selectman Leonardo “Chip” Guercio agreed. “They have opportunities to walk away,” he said. “I don’t think a fence here or a fence there is going to stop that.”
Instead, Guercio suggested that Kacevich, who was scheduled to be released on Jan. 29, may have run away because he wanted to be arrested to be put back in.
Fence or no fence, Thomas Carr , who resides in the nearby Apple Orchard Estates development, said he isn’t worried about the proximity of the prison. “We’re not going to move over it,” he said. “You have to have prisons, and they’ve got to be somewhere.”
But Shirley resident Dina Samfield , who has a young child, said the prison concerns her more than the mountain lion that some residents have reported seeing in the area.