Heroux Pitches Second Option for New Bedford’s Ash Street Jail Closure
Just over one week after Bristol County Sheriff Paul Heroux announced on WBSM's SouthCoast Tonight that he had a plan to close the controversial Ash Street Jail, he hosted Massachusetts lawmakers for a tour of the 135-year-old jail and the facilities on the main campus in Dartmouth.
The first Ash Street closure plan Heroux announced involved retrofitting the former ICE detention facility for 100-plus single cells in order to relocate the approximately 96 Ash Street inmates to Dartmouth. It was a plan which he estimated would cost approximately $10 million.
During the tour, he pitched an alternative plan which he said would be preferable and more cost effective.
Heroux's second pitch is to retrofit the old gymnasium within the Dartmouth House of Correction for 100-plus single cells and relocate the BCSO training facility from the annex across the street to the ICE detention facility on the main campus at 400 Faunce Corner Road.
The second option, Heroux estimated, would only cost $5 million to $7 million. This is due to the fact that retrofitting the gymnasium would involve much less fortification because it is already within a secure facility.
He said there would also be a cost benefit to moving all operations to the main campus and not having a lease obligation for the annex facilities across the street, which currently costs $144,000 a year.
He said he arrived at the figures for estimated cost by applying his experience overseeing capital projects as Mayor of Attleboro and sitting on the State House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets when he served as a state representative.
The new sheriff is asking his former statehouse colleagues to secure funding for a feasibility study.
Heroux estimated a feasibility study would cost between $200,000 to $300,000 and involve the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) conducting an evaluation of the facilities.
Pending the outcome of the study by DCAMM, Heroux would then be asking state lawmakers and Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey to secure the funding to complete the project.
Heroux has continued to tout what he sees as the benefits of closing Ash Street: centralize all BCSO operations to its main campus in Dartmouth, save taxpayer money by reducing utility and labor costs, allow inmates who need single-cell accommodations to better access available programming, and reduce inmate demoralization.
Heroux admitted that he has moved from a position of ambivalence about closing Ash Street – once going as far as to say he was surprised by the relatively cleanly conditions. – to now advocating for relocating all operations to the main campus in Dartmouth.
He credits his more proactive position to having an opportunity to evaluate the facilities.
"This is going to pay for itself," Heroux said. "If we do this, we pay up front, then save on the back end, just with the efficiencies."
Lawmakers in attendance were New Bedford State Rep.s Tony Cabral and Chris Hendricks, Taunton Rep. Carol Doherty, Westport Rep. Paul Schmid, and Foxboro Senator Paul Feeney, who represents the greater Attleboro region of Bristol County.
Also in attendance was New Bedford Chief of Police Paul Oliveira, and representatives from Prisoners Legal Services.
Governor Healey was invited to the tour but was unable to attend. Heroux has been in contact with Healey and her office in hopes to arrange a visit to the facilities.
Lawmakers that spoke to reporters supported moving forward with the feasibility study.
"It's an interesting idea," said Rep. Hendricks, an attorney who sits on the Judiciary Committee in the State House. "Obviously Ash Street is an old, old, building and getting up to modern standards with inmate care is of the utmost importance."
Rep. Doherty, having seen the inside of the Ash Street Jail for the first time, called the jailhouse "old" and "inadequate" for inmate housing.
"I think it's really worthy of the legislature looking at that, and the sheriff's idea that we might appropriate sufficient revenue to conduct a feasibility study, that's a good place to begin," she said.
Senator Feeney signaled support for Heroux's proposal, citing the many improvements in BCSO operations that it could bring and the opportunity for economic development that is presented at the site of the Ash Street Jail.
"I'm certainly inclined to be supportive of Sheriff Heroux's proposal to close the antiquated Ash Street Jail in favor of consolidation in Dartmouth," Feeney told WBSM. "It seems to me that such a move would increase safety for the correctional officers, allow for a more rehabilitative environment for inmates, and be fiscally beneficial to the taxpayers."
"I defer to my SouthCoast legislative colleagues that represent the city, as well as local officials, on the ultimate reuse and potential redevelopment of the jail," Feeney said. "However, my visit today left me with hope that additional economic development or housing for working-class families could take the place of that dinosaur of a facility."
Feeney also indicated that this process will involve a broad coalition of regional lawmakers.
"Going forward, this will be a collaborative discussion of Bristol County legislators that will rightfully be led by the New Bedford delegation, and I look forward to hearing their thoughts and gauging the feasibility of the sheriff's proposal," he said.
Rep. Cabral, whose district includes Ash Street, has previously stated that he supports the closure of the jailhouse, but was reluctant to comment during the tour.
"I'm in listening mode," Cabral told reporters.
Rep. Schmid deferred to comments from his colleagues.
"I think Chris and Carol summed it up very nicely," he said.
Dartmouth Rep. Chris Markey and Somerset Rep. Patricia Haddad were not in attendance but had previously told WBSM that they support the closure of Ash Street and the relocating of BCSO operations to Dartmouth.
Elizabeth Matos, the Executive Director of Prisoners Legal Services, told WBSM that the organization is looking forward to the next steps and hopes that this move is done in a way that is mindful of the fact that incarceration rates in Massachusetts have declined over the years.
"I think this sheriff, unlike the prior sheriff, is much more evidence-based and receptive to ideas that are grounded in evidence that are proven to be effective," she said. "So we're looking forward continuing to be looped in and being part of the conversation."
Though some New Bedford city officials have raised concern about moving the regional lockup for the NBPD and other local police stations away from Ash Street, Chief Oliveira told WBSM that relocating the lockup to Dartmouth isn't a major logistical inconvenience.
Oliveira went on to add that it could improve the efficiency of local law enforcement operations if they established centralized booking in Dartmouth along with the new regional lockup.
"(Heroux) is definitely going to have conversations with the police chiefs here in Bristol County about our concerns," Oliveira said. "And it seems like they are all things he is willing to work out and make part of the plan."