Built in 1971, and laden with asbestos, The Middlesex Jail occupies floors 17 through 22 in an otherwise empty structure known as the Edward J. Sullivan building on Thorndike Street in East Cambridge, Massachusetts.
There are currently 403 detainees being held, in a space designed to accommodate 160, according to Sheriff James V. DiPaola of the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Department.
Other departments once housed here moved out in 2008 because of asbestos hazards. This includes both courts and administrative offices.
A July 6 riot at the jail, reportedly sparked by fears of swine flu, but equally as likely due to overcrowding and asbestos, forced the evacuation of some prisoners to four other facilities.
The prisoners reportedly smashed the fire suppression system on the 18th floor, causing extensive flooding on every floor, including the lobby, and disabling elevators. Authorities placed 187 detainees on buses and moved them to facilities in nearby Billerica, Middleton, Dedham, and Boston. Nine prisoners are being held in solitary confinement and may face further charges.
Attempts to relocate the jail itself to another location have failed, allegedly because of lack of funds, and DiPaola reiterated that overcrowding, as well as flu fears, may have exacerbated this recent riot. The population in the jail, which last summer reached 427, forces prisoners to sleep not only in crowded jail cells but also in corridors, the recreation center and a chapel.
These living conditions belie the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office declaration that it provides a “secure, safe and humane environment” for both staff and offenders. Nor is asbestos a new issue. In 1989, the Boston Globe reported on air quality testing after three building employees died of cancer one after the other.
The building failed that air quality test, and was subsequently tested, and asbestos remediation performed, until 2005, when the jail was again scheduled to be shut down because of asbestos issues. Unfortunately, no site was found to house a new jail, and in 2007 the jail was again slated for temporary closure to permit asbestos removal and a $125-million renovation.
That never happened either, and the walls of the Sullivan building remain full of asbestos insulation. What did happen is, on March 14 of 2008, the Middlesex Superior Court moved to a temporary home in the TradeCenter in Woburn. The District Attorney’s office followed suit shortly thereafter. The prisoners remain in a toxic building.
Asbestos fibers cause a host of illnesses, from asbestosis (a respiratory ailment) to lung and digestive system cancers, but the worst disease is mesothelioma. This, which is an irritation of the mesothelial lining of the chest or abdomen, leads to incurable tumors whose only known cause is asbestos. There is no known cure for mesothelioma, and even radical surgical procedures are designed more for patient comfort than eradication of the cancer. Most people diagnosed with mesothelioma are given about a year to live.
Sources: Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office, Boston Globe, Daily News Tribune