PLYMOUTH — Deep in the woods of Myles Standish State Forest, away from the bicycle paths, swimming holes and Boy Scout cabins, a cluster of low-slung buildings sit on the edge of a pond shaped like a heart. Men in orange jump suits amble from building to building as security guards, some with dogs, stand watch.
Everywhere along the two roads leading to the buildings there are signs: “Department of Correction, No Trespassing.”
The complex, known at various points in its history as Restoration Camp #1, MCI-Plymouth or simply “the forestry camp,” has operated in the heart of the largest publicly owned park in Southeastern Massachusetts for more than 60 years, barely noticed by visitors or residents who live along its rural fringes.
Those who were aware of the prison camp typically held it in high regard because the men who stayed there, usually prisoners nearing the end of their sentence, were frequently dispatched to clear forest trails, work on municipal buildings or clean up town properties.
But all that changed last month when the state Department of Correction, responding to an opioid epidemic that is claiming hundreds of lives in Massachusetts each year, moved nearly 200 civilly committed patients into the camp to be treated for life-threatening addictions, typically against their will.
In the first month after the program’s move from Bridgewater to Myles Standish, there were four escapes involving 13 patients, prompting a series of manhunts in the 12,400-acre forest that at times involved police, dogs and helicopters. Park visitors’ cars were searched and neighbors were terrified by rumors of inmates sneaking through backyards.
“It can be scary when you wake up and there’s helicopters and a search going on,” said Plymouth Town Manager Melissa Arrighi, who has asked corrections officials to discuss issues at the facility with selectmen at a televised meeting later this month.
The Department of Correction now says it’s working to secure the camp with two layers of fence, additional security staff and a special tactical team responsible for bringing back escaped patients. For the first time in its history, the former prison inside Myles Standish State Forest will actually look a lot like a prison.
The prison camp on the shores of Bumps Pond was started in 1952 as a minimum-security, pre-release program designed to prepare inmates to re-enter life on the outside. Much of the camp, which includes several dormitories, a dining hall and recreational facilities, were built by inmates themselves.
Restoration Camp #1
Inmates at the camp built trails and did other work throughout the state forest as well as in neighboring towns, particularly Carver. In 2000, former Carver Selectman Frank Mazzilli, who helped launch the prison work program, said the crews were doing more than 8,000 man-hours of work in the town each year.
Officials say there were few problems at the camp in its first 65 years, despite its lack of security measures. But there was one major exception: In 1991, two inmates escaped the camp and broke into the home of an 85-year-old Plymouth woman, whom they threw to the ground and gagged while ransacking the house. The woman was not seriously injured and the fugitives were later caught.
The prison camp escaped the cost-cutting budget ax in 2000 thanks to union intervention, but it could not survive the opioid epidemic a decade later. Fallon said the Department of Correction determined that the 250-bed camp was better suited for substance abuse treatment than its former home in Bridgewater, where patients slept in large group bunk rooms in a correctional complex that also housed a prison and state mental hospital.
The new Plymouth facility, which opened May 1 as the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center, is now home to around 190 patients civilly committed under a law known as Section 35. Patients stay in two-bed rooms and are generally free to move around the camp while receiving treatment.
But unlike the camp’s previous tenants, these men generally don’t want to be there. Section 35, considered a tool of last resort, allows family members, police officers and doctors to ask a judge to force someone into substance abuse treatment, usually against their will.
“They’re not necessarily ready for treatment or they have not acknowledged entirely that they have a problem,” said Sarah Cloud, director of social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Plymouth. “It can be very difficult for them to have this placed upon them, even though its well intended, it’s for their safety and intended to interrupt their cycle long enough to make a difference.”
Treatment ordered for more adults
Commitment filings under the law have surged amid the opioid crisis, reaching 9,915 for adults in fiscal 2016, and Cloud credits it with saving lives. But she says patients often can’t appreciate that until some time into their treatment, which can last up to 90 days.
That became apparent almost immediately after the treatment center moved into its less-secure new home in the forest. On May 2, the second day it was open, three patients ran off just before dinner and were quickly rounded up after police dogs and a State Police helicopter were called in. Six patients took off the following night, with three of them eluding police until they were picked up about 6:30 a.m. by Wareham police.
Later in the month, another patient walked off the camp but was returned almost immediately. In late May, three more patients walked away and were rounded up within an hour by a tactical team that was posted at the camp after the earlier escapes.
Fallon, the Department of Correction spokesman, said the patients caused no damage while on the loose except for several who broke into a small camp and stole some clothes. He said he was not aware of any criminal charges being filed in connections with the escapes.
Fallon said the department is bringing in more supervisors and corrections officers next week and expects to start construction on a fence that will circle the dormitories and dining hall. Another fence, to be built in a second phase, will enclose a programming and recreation area.
On June 1, there was plenty of evidence of security around the camp, where men in jump suits could be seen walking between buildings as officers stood guard. A Ledger reporter and photographer who went to observe the camp were ordered to leave after just a few minutes on the road outside.
Though many neighbors of the park have been riled by stories of drug-addicted patients running loose in the woods, few park users seemed concerned. Matt Florindo, a Wareham resident who was going for a walk at the other end of the forest, had never heard of the former prison camp but wasn’t concerned about the possibility of patients escaping.
“It really doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It’d be another story if it was murderers or rapists.”
Bill Vickstrom, president of the Friends of Myles Standish State, said his biggest concern is that news of the escapes will damage the reputation of the state park and discourage people from visiting.
“We as a group have done a lot to promote responsible use of the forest and get people to enjoy it as a resource,” he said.