"Old Colony was a hellhole from the day it opened," says Robert Dellelo. A prison reformer with the American Friends Services Committee, Dellelo served four years at OCCC before escaping in 1993. (It was his third jailbreak; he eventually served the remainder of his sentence at other prisons.) "But now it's going to become the hiding place for these [mentally ill] people. I spent years in solitary confinement in the worst prisons in this state, and it's hard for even me to imagine what's going on in there right now."
A new beginning?
Since opening in 1987, OCCC has housed its share of high-profile convicts, from "Blizzard of '78 Killer" Gerald Hill, to Anthony Warren, who was found guilty of shooting three-year-old Kai Leigh Harriott in Dorchester seven years ago, leaving her paralyzed. Other notorious guests have included Anthony Clemente, who, along with his son, killed four diners when he opened fire in the Charlestown 99 restaurant in 1995; and more recently Neil Entwistle, the Hopkinton man who was convicted of slaying his wife and daughter and escaping to his parents' home in England.
"The name of Old Colony," says the OCCC Web site, "fosters a sense of hope and 'new beginning.' " OCCC was conceived more than a decade after the uprising at Attica and highly publicized turbulence at nearby MCI-Walpole (now Cedar Junction), and it was designed in consideration of those hard lessons. For the first time in Mass DOC history, the original OCCC recruits spent a month learning basics, worked on the line, and then, only after deciding they could handle the job, trained at the academy in Shirley. Experienced officers were brought in from other state prisons in the hopes of fostering a fresh start in a new setting.
To lead this idealistic experiment, DOC brass selected former Walpole superintendent Joseph Ponte to run OCCC. Ponte had a reputation for effective, if heavy-handed, tactics, and was considered a good pick for the assignment. According to one former OCCC employee who was present at the beginning: "When you look at all of the facilities, OCCC was always regarded as having one of the healthier cultures — mostly due to the leadership and management. It also helped that when Old Colony was first staffed, the economy was such that it could have its pick of applicants."
But in the immediate wake of the commonwealth crack era, overcrowding became a problem. As early as 1990, many prisoners were forced to double bunk, even though 60 new cells had been added to the original 450. The OCCC that Paul Murphy oversaw, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, had in many ways become indistinguishable from other medium- and maximum-security prisons in Massachusetts — operating well above its intended capacity, and plagued by the same neglect and violence that has marred corrections culture in this state for more than a century. In 2002, the Southeastern Correctional Center — which was located in the same Bridgewater complex as OCCC — was closed due to budget problems. Its 610 residents were moved to other facilities, including Old Colony. As an added stressor, from that point on, staff and administrators were also responsible for the 100 convicts housed in the adjoining OCCC minimum-security unit, which previously had enjoyed its own organization.