BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — MIDDLETON — An $11 million regional support services building now under construction at Middleton Jail will streamline the intake of offenders from various police departments and make their handoff much safer, Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins said.
The state construction project will complete the jail’s campus, Cousins said. It will also allow the jail on Manning Avenue to turn the existing intake facility into a 24-cell jail for female offenders who are presently sent to the women’s state prison, MCI-Framingham.
“We don’t take females here now, so we will be able to take females, also,” Cousins said.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the 17,000-square-foot, single-story building was scheduled for 1 p.m. today. The project is expected to take 14 months to complete. It will be the newest building on the jail’s campus, which also has a $10 million regional emergency dispatch center nearing completion.
The new building is now going up in the parking lot of the jail across from the administration building.
Presently, those who are transported to the jail are driven through double gates in the razor wire-topped fence. Offenders have to walk out in the open into the intake center up a short flight of stairs. The new building will allow for an enclosed port.
“What you will have will be a safer area to take people out of vans,” Cousins said.
The new port can accommodate six police cruisers or vans, and there’s a long bay for the jail’s shuttle or even an MBTA bus if need be.
“If someone bolts, or reaches for someone or does something, they are contained in that area,” Cousins said.
The new building will also make it easier to deal with the daily back-and-forth to court. Even though the jail was built in 1991, the intake area is antiquated and cannot handle the load.
“It’s like Grand Central Station because it backs up,” Cousins said. “On an average day, we send 75 to 100 people to court.” The present intake building was designed for a jail of 550, but yesterday, about 1,050 were housed at the jail.
“It will make it a lot safer to have people go out to court,” Cousins said.
The new building will come with a property area with a conveyor belt system, similar to those found at a dry cleaner, to handle personal property. Presently, people’s belongings are bagged, tagged and stored. There will be an area where people can change and an area for those who might be suffering the effects of drinking or drugs or who have medical or mental health issues.
There’s a new records area and a separate area where a family member can wait to post bail. Another area will focus on facial recognition and an automated fingerprint identification system. A “risk area” will handle those who are unruly.
The facility will also use an “open booking concept,” Cousins said, used in county lockups in Florida, Maine and elsewhere. This means those waiting to be processed, and who do not need to be confined, will wait in an open area, similar to how a hospital emergency room works.
“Everyone thinks that people are going to be aggressive and charging everybody,” Cousins said, “but the truth of the matter is if you have the right facilities, you don’t have to have everybody put into a holding tank or a holding room.”
The facility will also allow the jail to expand the use of video-conferencing so there will be less need to take inmates to and from court.
The new support services building will also come with facilities and toilets for women, and the existing intake center will be gutted and outfitted with 24 cells for women.
“They want all the sheriffs out of Framingham because it’s a state prison,” Cousins said. “The argument is: ‘Why can’t women have the same services as men?’”
For instance, women who are being held for a pretrial hearing on a drunken-driving charge are sent to Framingham instead of being held at Middleton Jail. This makes it hard for family to see them, and it creates a logistical nightmare to get them to and from court, Cousins said.
Cousins, who has been sheriff for 16 years, said the new building has been in the pipeline for almost 11 years. It grew out of a master plan study on how to improve inmate flow.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.