New Bedford City Officials Weigh In on Ash Street Jail Closing Plan
A week ago, Bristol County Sheriff Paul Heroux made a bombshell announcement on WBSM's SouthCoast Tonight that he has a plan to close New Bedford's controversial Ash Street Jail and relocate the inmates to the now-defunct ICE detention facility, which is located on the BCSO main campus in Dartmouth.
In that time, local elected officials have begun chiming in on whether or not they support the potential game-changing policy in local corrections and criminal justice.
Many local lawmakers, who will need to lobby Beacon Hill for what Heroux estimates is a $10 million price tag, have come out in support of the move. They have highlighted the need to move on from the oldest operating jail in the country and centralize BCSO operations in Dartmouth.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell's initial reaction has not been as broadly supportive.
“The sheriff’s proposal may or may not ultimately make sense, but there is an array of considerations that need to be taken into account before any decision to proceed with a closure of the Ash Street facility," Mitchell said. “These include the operational impacts on the New Bedford Police Department and other departments in the region that rely on Ash Street as a regional lock-up facility, the impact on the surrounding historic neighborhood, planning for future use of the site, and, given the hefty $10 million price tag, the potential negative impact on other pending requests for state capital funding in Greater New Bedford.”
While Mayor Mitchell is skeptical of Heroux's relocation plan, the response from the majority of city councilors who have spoken on the record with WBSM about the closure of the Ash Street Jail has ranged from open minded to full-throated support.
Councilor at Large Shane Burgo, widely considered the most progressive member of the city council, said that this plan is a meaningful step toward criminal justice reform in Bristol County.
"I’m looking forward to the day that house of horrors is closed." Burgo said. "Going on 135 years with very little to no updates, Lizzie Borden had better accommodations than those being held there today. I’m thankful to Sheriff Heroux for taking the necessary steps to ensure our criminal justice system lives up to its actual name. We must remember that someone’s punishment for a crime is simply a loss of freedom, not a loss of dignity. I believe this is the right move for not only the inmates but the staff that have to work in such a deplorable building."
Councilor at Large Ian Abreu said that the closure of Ash Street presents an opportunity for New Bedford to take the site and use it for economic development opportunities such as housing, warehousing, or industrial purposes.
"The sheriff's announcement, in my opinion, creates a potential opportunity for the City of New Bedford to approach and/or work with the Commonwealth to see if is feasible for the city to take the Ash Street Jail site off the state's hands similar to what we've done with the armory," Abreu said.
"I believe there could be there could be opportunities for the city to put out Request for Proposal (RFP) to asses the property, view the best usage of said property, and submit proposals to the city for review," he said.
Ward 1 Councilor Brad Markey said moving on from a building as old as Ash Street would save taxpayer money, but his primary concern would be the relocation of the regional lockup. He also wondered if the $10 million the state may need to secure for the project could be better invested in local law enforcement.
"Ash Street is the central lockup for New Bedford and adjoining towns," Markey said. "My thought is New Bedford would probably be the biggest utilizer of Ash Street. Right now, you can get from the NBPD HQ on Rockdale Ave to Union Street fairly quickly."
"To go to Dartmouth takes officers and their vehicles out of New Bedford where they are needed to transport to Dartmouth taking them off our streets," he said. "Other towns who utilize Ash Street might have the same issues keeping units off their streets to transport the extra distance to Dartmouth."
Ward 2 Councilor Maria Giesta spoke on how she thinks the redevelopment of Ash Street should be carried out if it is closed.
"I hope that whatever decisions are made regarding the potential closure of Ash Street, that the residents in that area are involved in the process and listened to about what they’d like to see happen with the building," she said.
City Council President Linda Morad said in a recent appearance on WBSM's The Tim Weisberg Show that redeveloping the Ash Street site would be a benefit to the city and echoed similar sentiments to Giesta on neighborhood input.
"Change, no matter what it is, in the surrounding neighborhoods always need to consider the people who have lived there for a long time, and I'm fortunate to serve with colleagues who are very considerate of our existing residents and the changes that are going to be in their respective neighborhoods," she said.
Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Perreira said he's looking forward to learning more about Heroux's proposal.
"I plan on reaching out to Sheriff Heroux to take a tour of the facilities and speak with him about a wide range of items/issues," he said.
Ward 5 Councilor Scott Lima, who represents the neighborhoods around Ash Street, said in a recent appearance on SouthCoast Tonight that he expects the jail will be closed in due time and that it would improve the area.
"In the entire United States, I'm the sole ward councilor who lays claim to having the oldest jail operating in the country," Lima said. "I'd prefer to boast of having workforce housing built at the site of the Ash Street Jail, adding much needed housing stock to the City's coffers."
Ward 4 Councilor Derek Baptriste and Councilor at Large Brian Gomes could not be reached for comment.
Councilor at Large Naomi Carney, who is a longtime employee of the Bristol County Sheriff's Office, declined to comment.
The Ward 3 council seat is currently vacant pending the results of a special election.