As prison populations have dropped, many have asked: Can we cut our prison budget and free up resources for more community programming? Others have wondered why there are such big differences in per-inmate cost across counties in Massachusetts. Additionally, many are concerned as to whether incarcerated people are getting the help they need so that they can land on their feet when they return to the community.
More generally, budget designers have found it difficult to define appropriate levels of correctional spending. Lacking confidence in correctional budget requests, legislators have tended to give less funds than requested but then go back and add funds later in the year.
To try to get a firmer understanding of correctional spending , the legislature created a “special commission to conduct a comprehensive study to evaluate and make recommendations regarding the appropriate level of funding for the department of correction and each sheriff’s department.” I co-chaired that commission for the past two years and we just filed our final report on January 31.
Our charge called for us to develop a formula for how much each facility should cost. A specific finding of our commission is that no such formula exists. There is no substitute for careful negotiation of staffing levels. Massachusetts has a diverse collection of facilities in which people are incarcerated; many were built many decades ago and many were not originally built as prisons. Each facility needs to be individually evaluated to determine how it needs to be staffed to hold a particular population of prisoners.
Our commission reached two affirmative conclusions: First, there is evidence of overcapacity in the system and we should consider possibilities for consolidation. Second, we need to create a new structure to assure that inmates are getting the help they need while in prison.
Overall the system is holding barely half of the population it held only 14 years ago. As of January 31, 2022, the combined occupancy of all our state and county correctional facilities was 12,562, down from a peak of 25,078 in 2008. The decline reflects in part our reform efforts but also demographic and other factors that are cutting prison populations nationwide.
As a commission, we did not feel we could reach a conclusion as to whether particular facilities are over-staffed as a result of the drop in population. We recognized that in a given facility, a certain collection of housing units is necessary. Different units serve different population subgroups and those units need to be staffed regardless of whether or not they are full. We also recognized that during the days of peak over-crowding, staff levels may have been inadequate — staffing levels now may be much safer and support better programming.
But we did conclude that the excess of capacity system-wide raises the possibility of consolidation. If two facilities can be combined into one more fully occupied facility, then we could achieve savings. And yet, it is not obvious that we should consolidate facilities. When facilities were at their peak occupancy, inmates were double and triple bunked in cells that were originally designed for single occupancy. It may be that we should allow inmates to remain more spread out in single cells, especially as we are trying to reduce transmission of COVID-19.
There are many possible approaches to consolidation, but the commission only agreed to recommend better reporting that would standardize capacity definitions and support consideration of consolidation. Consolidation will be part of the legislative conversation over the next few years. I am committed to taking an active role in developing better reporting and continuing to ask the hard questions about consolidation.
The commission found that there was broad consensus among correctional leaders that they have a responsibility to provide high-quality rehabilitative programming. Sheriffs and others correctional leaders take pride in the programming that they do provide.
At the same time, the commission found that there was a disappointing dearth of data on whether inmates are getting the programming that they need. There are no consistently applied assessment tools to evaluate inmate needs, no agreed framework for defining which programs or treatments should be used to respond to particular needs, and uneven measurement of inmate program participation.
The members of the commission had divergent views on how to make rehabilitative programming more transparent. Some felt that recognizing the problem was enough — correctional officials are now on notice of the need to standardize and measure and they will get together and do better.
I am among those who feel we need to create a new operating agency run by health professionals with responsibility to oversee programming in all of our correctional institutions. Sheriffs and the Governor are each independently elected and have diverse philosophies. Many facilities just don’t have the professional treatment personnel needed to design and assure delivery of a portfolio of rehabilitative programming. An agency independent from correctional management might have more credibility with advocates for prisoners.
There are many questions to be answered about how a new rehabilitative agency would work and how it would integrate with correctional facilities. These are questions that I am committed to pursuing over the months to come.
In the end, our commission raised as many questions as it answered, but we did create a good record of what we learned and a new set of conversations that may help move us towards a correctional system that is more cost-effective and takes better care of the men and women in its custody.