Suffolk County Jail saga reaches Chapter 14, end may be in sight

The Charles Street (Suffolk County) Jail will be replaced. The new structure will most likely rise next to the site of the present one. It will provide 435 inmate beds. But how tall will it be? That's one of several matters still to be resolved after 14 years of court action and political bickering. For adventure, for intrigue, for twist of plot, even Homer's ``Odyssey'' cannot compare with the story of the Charles Street Jail.

After all, it required only 10 years for the epic hero to find his way home from Troy. The saga of the Charles Street Jail, which unfolds in thousands of legal papers on file at the federal courthouse, began 14 years ago -- and is not yet ended.

Notwithstanding, some of the chapters have been closed. All of the leading players now agree that a new, larger Suffolk County Jail must be built to accommodate the increasing number of inmates. And most agree that the 435-bed facility will be constructed next to the existing jail on Charles Street.

But they do not agree how tall the new jail should be.

That's one of the reasons Boston's city councilors, acting in their role as county commissioners, appealed a court decision ordering the city to begin building a 17-story jail by next January.

A 17-story jail will block the views of residents living in the high-rise towers of Charles River Park, protests Councilor Robert E. Travaglini, whose district includes the Charles Street Jail. ``I didn't know we were in the business of building penthouses for prisoners,'' he quips, adding that a jail of that scale will have a negative impact on nearby property values.

From his condominium on the 17th floor at Hawthorne Place, Alan Pailet can see Massachusetts General Hospital, the Charles River, and, off in the distance, a span of the Massachusetts Avenue bridge. Late-afternoon sun pours through the room's west-facing windows -- but that light will be lost if the jail goes up as ordered, he says.

``If the jail is built at 17 stories, and if Mass General proceeds with its ambitious construction plans, it will virtually create a wall between the Charles [River] and the West End [now known as Charles River Park],'' says Mr. Pailet, president of Hawthorne Residents Association.

The City Council voted to build a new 13-story tower and to renovate the existing jail. But Mayor Raymond L. Flynn recently vetoed that plan, saying it would cost an additional $12 million -- money Boston does not have.

To sidestep what appeared to be another political standoff, Justice Paul J. Liacos of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided in January that a 17-story jail would be the most expedient, least-expensive solution. And he ordered construction to begin by Jan. 3, 1986. The Flynn administration is abiding by the court order; the City Council is appealing it. The full bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear arguments for appeal March 8.

Justice Liacos is somewhat of a newcomer to the Charles Street Jail saga, becoming involved in October during a case on prison overcrowding. Liacos is not the first judge to play a role in the controversy, however. In 1972, US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity heard a case that was filed on behalf of inmates at Charles Street Jail. Noting that these inmates were merely awaiting trial and had been convicted of no crimes, Judge Garrity ruled conditions there were so bad that they were unconstitutional. He ordered the jail closed by 1976.

Judge Garrity's order has been postponed four times while the politicians considered no fewer than six locations for a new jail. (Some people even floated the idea of putting prisoners in former Navy brigs in Charlestown and South Boston.)

To date, $2.5 million has been spent to draw up designs, but not one new cell has been built in efforts to replace the pre-Civil War jail.

Judging from the recent history of the Charles Street Jail, it would appear that a court order is not the final word in the world of Boston politics.

However, attorney Lynn Weissberg, representing the inmates, says: ``We do feel that we're reaching the point where a new jail will be built. We're going through the last legal step now [with the City Council's appeal].''

Lack of money to build the $43 million jail could lead to some delays, Ms. Weissberg concedes. But she notes that the city has set aside $12.5 million, and last Friday Gov. Michael S. Dukakis filed a bill to provide $28 million for a new facility.

Still, there are some people who are dissatisfied with, even if resigned to, the idea of keeping the jail on its current site. Suffolk County Sheriff Dennis J. Kearney, who is responsible for operating the jail, has long maintained that ``Charles Street is the worst site possible'' for a new jail.

``High-rise jails don't work,'' he says. ``You have to move prisoners on elevators.'' Because there must be guards on every floor, ``operational costs will double and your staff will double,'' Sheriff Kearney says.

Kearney admits he has already fought -- and lost -- his battle to build a new jail elsewhere. Although he now prefers the City Council's 13-story option over the 17-story plan, he says he will accept either.

But residents of Charles River Park, members of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, and real estate developer Jerome Rappaport are still fighting -- and now they're mustering their lawyers.

``If they're going to insist on this new plan [17 stories], we're going to go to court,'' says Sumner Edelstein, president of Charles River Properties, a development firm.

The residents may not like having a jail -- high-rise or otherwise -- in their neighborhood, but Mr. Rappaport stands to lose a lot more than the view out his window. Of 480 residential units at Hawthorne Place, he's still trying to sell about 200 as condominiums.

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