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Construction crews level women's jail site 'park'

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

By PAMELA H. METAXAS

pmetaxas@repub.com

CHICOPEE - An ongoing protest against construction of a $27 million regional women's jail resulted in the construction and subsequent dismantling of a park early yesterday to focus attention on what opponents say is better use for the 20-acre-site as well as any other proposed jails statewide.

"We were here at 4 a.m. with about 30 people and we built a park with many donations. It was really beautiful," said Jo Comerford, organizer and coordinator of the effort.

Comerford and Holly Richardson, said state and city police arrived at the site of the jail, 701 Center St. and asked them to dismantle the "park."

"They negotiated with us," said Comerford, who noted everything except a swing set was removed and the protesters were relocated across the street holding signs as police stood by.

"The construction crews were very respectful of us. They are only doing their jobs," said Comerford.

"We built a beautiful park. It was a vision of what could have been," said Comerford, who spoke as Fontaine Brothers crews cleared a portion of the wooded site - the former location of the regional dog pound.

Richard J. McCarthy, assistant deputy superintendent and spokesman at Ludlow's Hampden County Correction Center, said yesterday, "The original plan for the correction center was to have a separate free-standing women's facility on the Ludlow site. Environmental regulations regarding the Ludlow site prevented that from happening. As a result, women are incarcerated in the middle of what is essentially the male correctional facility and they are outnumbered by the men who surround them by a ratio of 11 to 1."

"Simple common sense dictates that this cannot be a permanent situation. We understand the protesters are opposed to building of correctional facilities but we believe this regional women's correction center is necessary for appropriate confinement and services for women offenders," said McCarthy.

Richardson noted that in 1902, George Atwater left many parcels of land to a trust to be used for "the inhabitants of Springfield and Chicopee" as park land. "This land was meant to be enjoyed by the people of Chicopee. I think it's fair to say that very few people enjoy going to jail," Richardson said.

Organizers statewide have been protesting this jail for the past three years and yesterday pledged to continue

"As Gov. Mitt Romney has put the wheels in motion for the construction of this jail, our park is all that's standing in the way of the bulldozers and backhoes," Boston resident Toussaint Losier said.

Comerford said, "This park will help us ask a critical question of our communities and our elected officials. Do we need another jail at the expense of green space and schools and public transportation, jobs, housing and health care for all? We don't think so. For a precious moment, we will be walking the walk or swinging on the swing, as the case may be."

While organizers knew the park would be dismantled, they felt their message was a strong one that needed to be expressed. They oppose incarceration of women for nonviolent offenses, opting instead for services and programming to help them and avoid what they say is a certain return for women to the same neighborhoods.

"There are alternatives to incarceration," Comerford said.

McCarthy said Fontaine Brothers crews last week began site preparation work which will continue throughout the winter with a construction timetable of 20 months. The new facility will offer female inmates comprehensive services such as substance-abuse treatment, job and educational training and "re-entry" preparation.

For several weeks, organizers have been meeting and strategizing as well as collecting donations of park and game equipment from the wider community.

"This jail is wrong. We know it's wrong. Community people know it's wrong. Our community leaders know it's wrong. And we're not about to let it be built without showing ourselves and each other what else beautiful is really possible," said Richardson.

2005 The Republican

2005 MassLive.com All Rights Reserved.

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     Last Updated on Wednesday July 25, 2007.