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Court orders end to Cambridge jail overcrowding

Prisoners’ Legal Services and ACLU of Massachusetts successfully challenge unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

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Cabmridge — A Massachusetts judge has ordered the Sheriff of Middlesex County to end unconstitutional overcrowding in the Middlesex County Jail within 30 days, ordering that no more than 230 pretrial detainees be held in a jail that in recent years has frequently housed more than 400. The jail houses people who are awaiting trial and thus have not been convicted of a crime.

The court order was issued in response to lawsuits filed by Prisoners’ Legal Services, the ACLU of Massachusetts and private attorneys Doug Salvesen, of Yurko, Salvesen and Remz, P.C., and Kenneth Demoura of Demoura/Smith. They challenged conditions at both the Jail and the Billerica House of Correction.

Although a 1990 court order previously capped the number of detainees in the jail at 200, the actual number of detainees has frequently swelled to over 400 people in a facility that was built for only 160. The resulting overcrowding forced people awaiting trial to sleep on the floor in plastic “boats” and deprived them of adequate toilet and shower facilities, according to findings issued by Judge Bruce R. Henry.

“Conditions in the Cambridge jail were both inhumane and unsafe,” said Matthew R. Segal, Legal Director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This order will go a long way toward remedying that injustice.”

The Cambridge jail occupies the top three floors of a building that previously also housed the Middlesex Superior Court and the Cambridge District Court. The courts and related government offices moved out of the building in 2008 and 2009 after the state decided the cost of removing asbestos from the building was too great.

“This is an important victory for everyone who cares about the Constitution and the rule of law,” said Leslie Walker, Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. “Conditions at the jail were deplorable. Judge Henry’s decision will put an end to overcrowding that failed to meet minimum standards.”

Under the order, many of the people previously held in the jail will be moved to the Billerica House of Correction, which houses both pretrial detainees and inmates serving out their sentences after conviction.