Officials Find Jail Violates State Codes

Reports Raise Worry for Inmate Safety in Emergencies

By MANDY LOCKE

The Massachusetts Department of Corrections and the state Department of Public Health assigned the Dukes County House of Corrections poor marks for substandard safety and health provisions for inmates.

Inspection reports obtained by the Gazette through public records requests revealed over 50 violations of state codes relating to fire hazards, cleanliness and medical provisions for inmates over the last year and a half.

"There is concern that something needs to be done with the facility," said Howard Wensley, director of the division of community sanitation in the public health department.

The violations, which range from moldy showers to dangerous fire hazards in the cellar, have long been on the radar screen for the Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Department of Corrections (DOC).

Sheriff Michael McCormack this week conceded that the jail is largely out of compliance - failing to meet 19 of the 26 randomly selected standards the DOC inspector reviewed in October of 2001. But these deviations, he said, reinforce the dangerousness of the 1870s jail - a facility the sheriff's department has been campaigning to replace for nearly two decades.

"People working for me are not working in a safe place. People in my custody are not living in a safe place. Anybody who goes through the jail can see that," Mr. McCormack said.

Every October, an auditor from the DOC selects for inspection about two dozen regulations from over 100 laws governing the conditions of state correctional facilities. The jail administrators review inspection results in the October report before the auditor returns in April to reinspect compliance with laws tested six months before.

While several of the noncompliance issues refer to procedures not in place or paperwork not filed appropriately, many violations flagged by the DOC auditor in October reveal alarming deficiencies. They include:

* No certificate of occupancy.

* Fire evacuation plan last reviewed in 1988.

* No secondary means of releasing inmates from cells during emergency such as a fire.

* No emergency generator hooked up.

* Nurse has used a bathroom to triage inmate health complaints.

* Inmates do not receive physicals within the required two-week time frame.

A state inspector at the department of public safety, according to Mr. McCormack, refused to issue a certificate of occupancy several years ago due to unsafe conditions for inmates.

In addition to these explicit violations of state laws, the DOC inspector noted a lack of cleanliness in several parts of the jail. Mold covered the wall of one shower and the inspector found no drain cover. Inmate records lined the cellar floor in cardboard boxes. The temperature in one refrigerator, used to store milk, had climbed to 48 degrees.

While the department corrected many of the noncompliance issues by the DOC's return visit in April, nine of the areas - including establishing a back-up means to release prisoners in an emergency and the hook-up of the emergency generator - failed inspection again. The DOC official also noted six new housekeeping problems.

The Dukes County jail fared even worse in the department of public health's inspection in May of this year - racking up a total of 42 violations.

Inadequate conditions reported by the public health official include:

* No ventilation, a broken toilet and a black toilet seat in the 10-foot by 6-foot female cell.

* Dirty toilet and sink, exposed bars and a mattress on the floor in A block.

* No ventilation, no windows and nonfunctioning bathroom exhaust in the 1986 modular unit.

* No windows, no ventilation, broken sink, moldy showers and overcrowded cells in B block.

* Overcrowded cells in C and D block.

* Uncovered prepared food in the refrigerator, three-bay sink not disinfected prior to food preparation, cleaning rags not sanitized and mislabeled food products on kitchen shelves.

The jail is technically allowed to house 19 inmates, and all of its cells are approved to hold only one prisoner. This week, 25 inmates resided at the Dukes County House of Corrections - a count that had climbed to 34 just a few years ago.

While the DPH is required to inspect state correctional facilities each year, no one from the state agency had visited the county jail since 1998. Fifteen of the 42 violations noted by DPH this year were repeat violations from 1998.

"These are not dissimilar reports," Mr. Wensley said.

Of the DPH violations, a dozen require the replacement or addition of equipment in the facility. Nine require maintenance of existing equipment or appliances. But almost half of the 42 violations deal with routine housekeeping matters - from lack of sanitizers in the kitchen to a mop and bucket stored in the same areas as food products.

"Housekeeping is a daily issue - one we try and concentrate on. I agree with the auditors. If something is less than clean, there is no excuse for that," Mr. McCormack said.

The sheriff's department employs no custodian. Cleaning, kitchen help, laundry and painting responsibilities are split among willing inmates. Compensation comes in the form of time off their sentences. For every month of chores completed satisfactorily, an inmate can chisel two and a half days off the sentence. A year-long sentence could easily be reduced to 11 months.

While the reports detail specific infractions in state codes, neither inspection calls for the ultimate abandonment of the current facility.

"No one is looking at the global issue. The smaller issues don't matter a hill of beans until we rectify the larger issue," Mr. McCormack said.

Despite the laundry list of violations at the Dukes County jail, the state administers no penalties for failure to comply with minimal codes. Lack of accountability from the state makes it easy to become resigned to functioning out of compliance.

"There doesn't appear to be any large consequence [for violations]," Mr. McCormack said, noting that the state shifts liability responsibilities to the county by documenting fire, safety and health problems within the facility.

Court mandates calling for immediate action in problem facilities typically result from class-action lawsuits initiated by inmates. The sheriff and a department of corrections official could not recall any court action against a substandard facility being instigated by a state agency.

Correction plans submitted by the sheriff's department in the last year partially hinge on a new jail or substantial renovations to the 130-year-old facility. In response to installing exterior windows in B block, deputy superintendent Mary Lee McCormack said: "Corrective action that would involve constructing exterior windows is cost prohibitive at this time. Please note that we are currently involved in funding that would enable us to construct a new facility or make major renovations to the existing one."

But airport commissioners threw the sheriff's department a curve ball last month - saying that a piece of land the sheriff has been eying for a new facility is off-limits for nonaviation projects in the next 20 years. Wrangling continues between county commissioners and airport officials to redraft the master plan to include a new jail on eight of the 683 acres of county-owned land regulated by Federal Aviation Administration.

Mr. McCormack remains confident the Island will build a new jail in the next decade.

"This is just a bump in the road. The airport master plan is just a plan. Plans can change," Mr. McCormack said.

Even if the county immediately secured a site - through petitioning the FAA or taking adjacent land to the current facility by eminent domain - construction will take several years, time that inmates will continue to live under current conditions.

"I'm convinced we'll have a new jail. I think the majority of the people are convinced of that. My worry is time," Mr. McCormack said.