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.