Health and safety audits find hundreds of violations at Western Massachusetts county jails

By Shira Schoenberg
January 20, 2016

The most recent Department of Public Health audits of county jails in Worcester, Hampden, Franklin, Hampshire and Berkshire counties found hundreds of health and safety violations. The number of repeat violations ranged from a low of 90 in Hampshire County, a jail with 234 inmates the day of the inspection, to a high of262 repeat violations in Worcester County, which serves around 1,100 inmates daily.

Advocates for prisoners say they are not surprised at the high numbers of violations. Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said her organization often gets calls from prisoners complaining about cleanliness and conditions at jails, from excessive heat in the summer to outbreaks of disease.

Walker said Prisoners’ Legal Services reports violations to the Department of Public Health and the jails. Sometimes, she said, issues are resolved; other times, they are not. “It’s pretty catch as catch can,” Walker said. “We talk to the superintendent, they assure us it’s on the to do list. Sometimes it gets done, sometimes it doesn’t.”

As with any public project, the Legislature must appropriate money for capital spending – which can be difficult in tight budget years. Walker said she has heard jail officials say they need more money to make major repairs. But, she argues, some of the funding is political.

“There may not be enough money to fix everything that needs to be fixed, but there is enough money to satisfy the guards’ unions,” Walker said.

Walker thinks there should be better enforcement of the health codes. “I don’t think there’s any strong enforcement mechanism if a facility says ‘We don’t have enough money, we’re doing our best,'” Walker said.

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