Bristol County Sheriff Paul Heroux on Friday took a few local state legislators on a brief tour of both county jails, and asked them to support a formal study of whether the Ash Street Jail and Regional Lockup in New Bedford can be closed and all of his agency’s operations concentrated at the North Dartmouth complex.
Heroux said a study by the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance is a crucial first step in finding out if space at North Dartmouth, a 150-acre campus that opened in 1990, can be renovated to accommodate inmates now housed at Ash Street, one of the country’s oldest if not the oldest still-operating jails that opened a century earlier.
State legislators on hand Friday said it seemed reasonable to expect that money for a study — Heroux estimates it would cost $200,000 to $300,000 — could be included in the next state budget. He roughly estimated the cost of the whole project at $10 million to $12 million, including building a training center on the Dartmouth campus to replace a leased space across Faunce Corner Road.
Heroux has adjusted his approach since last week, when he first offered the notion of replacing Ash Street by renovating the former immigration detention center at North Dartmouth, a building separate from the main Jail and House of Correction that was built to hold people in two dormitories rather than cells. On Friday he said he thinks it could make more sense to build cells, perhaps in two blocks of two tiers each, in a high-ceiling space in the main building that was once a gym, then dormitory housing, but is now vacant.
He said that would likely be less expensive. Compared with the former immigration detention center, which was closed in 2021, the gym is within the more fortified construction of the jail and is inside the main security perimeter.
For now, he said the key step is getting local legislators to back a formal engineering study of what can and cannot be done, and how much it would cost.
“If they don’t support this, this doesn’t happen,” said Heroux, whose first day on the job as the new county sheriff was Jan. 4.
In November the Democratic former Mayor of Attleboro defeated the 25-year incumbent Thomas M. Hodgson, who resisted calls over the years to close Ash Street. Criminal justice advocates, many of whom were Heroux campaign supporters, have long complained about poor conditions at the jail, including faulty plumbing, showers that frequently didn’t work, lack of programs for inmates and poor food hygiene.
Heroux never campaigned on a promise to close Ash Street, but said he would consider the options of how that could be done.
Seven members of the Bristol County legislative delegation — six from the House of Representatives, one state senator — were there for part of the tour of sections of Ash Street and the Jail and House of Correction on Friday, which went about 90 minutes from late morning to noon. At first blush, the lawmakers sounded optimistic about getting the money for a study into a Fiscal Year 2024 budget that would be approved this summer.
“I think it’s a reasonable ask to go forward with the study and get the answers and go from there,” said State Sen. Paul R. Feeney, who represents the Bristol and Norfolk District.
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He said the subject of closing Ash Street — which now houses about 100 inmates, most of them in pretrial detention — has been discussed for years within the delegation. Some version of Heroux’s proposal could work as a way to do it, he said.
“I’m sold on it,” said Feeney. “When we see the conditions at Ash Street, it’s not ideal for the staff or inmate conditions. It’s time for us to close that. … At least for me this kind of seals the deal. It just makes sense.”
Rep. Christopher Hendricks, of the 11th Bristol District, said he considered Heroux’s rough estimate of $200,000 to $300,000 a “modest ask for a study. I think it’s something we can get going.”
Rep. Carol Doherty, of the 3rd Bristol District, said this is an “appropriate time” to be considering this, as the governor, House of Representatives and Senate have yet to submit their respective budget proposals.
Heroux said that while Ash Street is not the “house of horrors” that some have made it out to be, it is too old to best serve a contemporary correctional system. While some parts of the three-story brick building are still in place from the original New Bedford Jail, built in 1829, most of the building that now stands there was opened in 1888.
The lines of sight are poor, meaning correctional officers have to be nearly directly in front of each cell to see inside, and the classrooms are outdated, using chalkboards rather than video screens. Christopher Horta, the assistant superintendent for support services, said the old building has chronic plumbing problems, chiefly low water pressure from calcium deposits in the pipes.
Trouble is, Ash Street inmates, especially those in pretrial detention, cannot simply be moved to the newer building in North Dartmouth because they have to be in single cells. Most of the newer campus — which houses about 700 inmates on a typical day, most in pretrial detention — is not set up for that.
Superintendent Steve Souza has said that the sheriff’s department needs the flexibility of single cells to separate people who may belong to rival gangs, or may bring into the jail other conflicts with each other that could turn violent inside the jail.
In the last week Heroux has emphasized both that Ash Street is outmoded, and that the current two-site operation is not efficient for use of staff and money. He said the newer accommodations would be less expensive to maintain, and would save the cost of traveling between the two facilities. He said just delivering meals three times a day from North Dartmouth to Ash Street is 12,500 miles a year.
If the former gymnasium can be renovated to accommodate about 100 cells, then the former immigration detention center could be adapted as a training center. As it is, he said the department spends $144,000 a year to lease a training space across the street.
Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org