There are more than 1,200 inmates in minimum security prisons in Massachusetts and they include people convicted of violent crimes such as armed robbery, kidnapping, even murder. And the head of the Department of Correction admits that if any one of these inmates wants to escape, they can.
It raises the question: Is the state putting the public in danger?
We visited the Pondville Correctional Center in Norfolk, one of the nine prison facilities in Massachusetts with a low level of security.
Pondville is home to about 200 inmates who are given a taste of freedom. They have rooms instead of cells and a lounge area for playing pool and cards. They can sign out and walk around outside. Some inmates are allowed to have dogs, which they train for use by disabled people.
“Basically, they’re inmates that are fed from the rest of the system; they’re on their way out to the community,” says Pondville superintendent Michael Thompson.
According to Thompson, minimum security prison, and the privileges that come with it, helps prepare inmates for their release. He boasts that there hasn’t been an escape from Pondville since 2005.
“They have to make the right decision not to leave, because as you see there’s no walls or fences,” Thompson says. “They have to make that one very important decision: Am I going to do the right thing, finish my sentence?
Not all inmates make that decision to finish out their sentence. Last year, five inmates walked away from minimum security and pre-release facilities in Massachusetts, including Manson Brown, whose escape in November triggered a nationwide manhunt.
Manson took off after reading in the newspaper that he had been indicted for rape.
Brown was caught and returned to Massachusetts last week as a legislative committee on Beacon Hill grilled Department of Correction Commissioner Harold Clarke about why Brown, who had escaped twice before, was housed in minimum security.
Commissioner Clarke insists it was appropriate for Brown to be in minimum security, even with his history of escapes, and claims that his office was unaware of the rape indictment against Clarke.
But the lawyer for the District Attorney’s office testified at the hearing that the Department of Correction was put on notice back in 2008 that a DNA match connected Brown to an unsolved rape.
“DOC did not drop the ball by any stretch of the imagination,” insists Clarke. “DOC was not notified by anyone that there were plans to indict this individual.”
We asked Senator Marc Pacheco, chairman of the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, if he is worried there might be other inmates in minimum security who don’t belong there.
“Absolutely,” Pacheco said after the hearing. “That’s why we’ve asked for a list today of all of those that are in minimum security.
Through a public records request, Fox Undercover obtained information from the Department of Correction which sheds light on the types of violent inmates housed in low security settings.
Of the 1,229 inmates in minimum security, 285 committed crimes against people, including armed robbery, assault and battery, carjacking, stalking, home invasion, and kidnapping.
There are six inmates in minimum security convicted of second degree murder.
The records also show 141 of the minimum security inmates committed crimes that resulted in sentences of 10 years or more – all the way up to life in prison.
Asked if people serving time for violent crimes should really be housed in facilities where they can walk right out the door, Clarke says: “Well people come in and hopefully people change.”
Clarke says minimum security prepares inmates for life in the real world and that inmates who leave the prison system from minimum security are less likely to commit another crime once they’re out.
“Ninety-two percent of these people are going home, and so if they’re going home, it behooves us to do all that we can to assure that once they get out, they’re going to reintegrate successfully.”
According to Clarke, 20 years ago Massachusetts housed more inmates in minimum security than today. He says, back then, fewer inmates re-offended.
“The process works and it worked right here in Massachusetts,” he says. “We went away from it and we are now getting results that are not desirable.
As for convicted murderers, Clarke says only people convicted of second degree murder are considered for minimum security, and only after the Parole Board has indicated it plans to release them.
“We are not just putting people out there and trusting and hoping they’ll do well,” Clarke adds. “We are monitoring, we are surveilling, we are checking, we’re instructing, we’re modeling.”
But none of that worked for Manson Brown who took off anyway.
We talked to Steve Kenneway, the head of the union representing prison guards.
“I would guarantee there are inmates in minimum security that have some type of escape history,” Kenneway says. “If they don’t change the system, then this is going to happen again.”
Meanwhile, if Commissioner Clarke gets his way, you’ll see more inmates in minimum security, not fewer. Now, only about 14 percent of inmates who are released leave from minimum security. Clarke says he’d like to see that number rise to 80 percent.
We asked the department how many of the inmates now in minimum security have previously escaped from prison or tried to escape. We’re waiting for an answer.
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