MIDDLETON — "Voke 1," a former vocational workshop, was filled to capacity yesterday at Middleton Jail.
A total of 84 male inmates, many waiting to be released from jail, sat around tables, lay on rows of bunk beds stacked tightly together or just milled about like passengers at a train station.
The designers of Middleton Jail never planned to use this room for prisoners. When the jail opened in 1991, this was one of the shop rooms in a large vocational training building. In fact, the name "Vocational School" is still on the outside wall.
But little went according to plan at this Essex County correctional facility, which was designed for 550 inmates — roughly one per cell. Yesterday, the daily count was 1,242.
"The day it opened, it was crowded because they immediately put two persons per cell," said Paul Fleming, a spokesman for Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins Jr.
By the mid-1990s, it got so crowded they started putting detainees into the vocational building. Yesterday, this two-story structure with no cells housed about 270 men, including the 84 in "Voke 1."
That's too many, according to a prisoners' rights group that visited Middleton Jail last summer to complain about prisoners temporarily housed in a gym.
"If people were living in these conditions and out working eight hours a day, I wouldn't feel as concerned," said Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. "But when you're just locked up and cooped up in one room with 80-something people ... it's a recipe for a disaster."
Something along those lines happened over the weekend at Middlesex Jail in Cambridge, where a riot erupted, apparently triggered by detainees' concerns about a possible swine flu outbreak. On Sunday, nine men started throwing papers and trash, and then tore down sprinkler heads, according to reports.
Due to the flooding that resulted, 193 detainees were sent to other correctional facilities around the state, including 37 — one with swine flu — to Middleton Jail. While the sick man went to the infirmary, the rest were placed in "Voke 4," on the second floor of the former vocational school. They are taking medicine and in virtual quarantine.
Until last summer, "Voke 4" was used as a warehouse and maintenance area, an official said.
While conceding they have been over capacity since the day they opened, officials at Middleton Jail say the correctional facility is properly staffed, well-run and relatively incident-free. An impressive feat, they say, considering the sheriff's budget has been slashed 10 percent.
"The amazing side (of this story) is that with the numbers we have and have been maintaining for years, we have so few incidents," said Michael Frost, the assistant superintendent.
Despite the crowded conditions, prisoners are carefully classified and placed in the right settings, officials said. For example, the vocational building only houses low-risk inmates awaiting release, those with medical issues or other special conditions.
Cousins is hopeful that a state master plan on the prisons, which is due to be finished this summer, will address some of the space issues at Middleton Jail. The state has $450 million earmarked for capital projects.
"We need between $18 million and $22 million to build a support services building," Cousins said.
That building, he said, will address a lot of the needs at the jail: a new and much larger prisoner intake area; an enclosed "sally port," or secure area where detainees can be picked up and dropped off; more attorney meeting rooms; a larger records room; and a bigger room to store inmates' belongings.
The new building also would have additional beds, including 24 where female prisoners could be held before court appearances. Now, jail guards leave at 5:30 a.m. to drive all the way to Framingham, the site of a women's correctional facility.
Legal advocacy groups say the state is attacking the problem from the wrong end. They blame much of overcrowding on the increase in mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders, the high bails sought by district attorneys and upheld by judges, and the lack of sufficient treatment facilities and alternative programs.
Studies show that "the public ... supports alternatives to incarceration and our legislators just have to wake up," said David White, a Boston lawyer who headed a Massachusetts Bar Association study on state prisons.
Meanwhile, the daily count at Middleton Jail hovers around 1,200, or more than twice its original capacity.
There is no more room in the main cell buildings, where prisoners are already doubled up, and no plans to open another room in the vocational building. But a "Voke 5" is not impossible.
"We never say 'never,'" Frost said.