The Move to Transfer an Empty Prison into a Shelter for the Unhoused

Former Massachusetts prison to reopen as shelter for homeless families, including migrants.

NORFOLK, Mass. — Massachusetts officials are planning to open an emergency shelter site at a former prison in June for families experiencing homelessness due to an influx of newly arrived migrants in the state.

The Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk, Massachusetts, was decommissioned in 2015 amid a decrease in nearly half of the state’s prison population in less than a decade, according to state officials. The facility will help house about 140 families, or up to 450 people, many of whom have been staying at Boston Logan International Airport, state Emergency Assistance Director Scott Rice said in a statement over the weekend.

State officials said the temporary shelter is scheduled to open in mid-June and is expected to operate from six months to a year. Massachusetts’ right-to-shelter law guarantees housing to homeless families with children and pregnant women who are eligible for emergency shelter.

The monthly number of migrant encounters has surged since 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. The center reported in February that the U.S. Border Patrol had nearly 250,000 encounters with migrants crossing into the United States from Mexico last December.

The migrant surge has overwhelmed cities across the United States, pushing shelters and other resources at capacity. Many newly arrived migrants have been forced to sleep on the streets, including at bus stops, outside airports, and in city halls.

Communities have raised concerns over the latest wave of migrants and have called for the federal government to do more to provide assistance and find a better solution for migrants hoping to enter the country.

Rice said the prison remains in good shape and families staying at the facility will have access to showers and bathrooms on each floor. The facility also has a cafeteria, a gymnasium, a large common room and offices that will be used for case management and administrative activities, according to Rice.

Other changes to make the prison more hospitable will include creating play areas for children, as well as classroom spaces for adults that will be used for for English language instruction, job training courses and housing search workshops.

State officials said the razor wire on the fence surrounding the Bay State Correctional Center will be removed and that the facility’s gates will remain open so that families will be free to come and go as needed.

In a statement Monday, Norfolk officials said the town was informed of the decision on Friday and had not been consulted before the prison was designated as a temporary emergency shelter.

“This decision was made as part of its ongoing response to the number of migrant families arriving in Massachusetts,” Norfolk officials said. “The Town had no role in this decision and was not consulted prior.”

Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll spoke with town officials on Saturday and told them that the shelter will be managed by a shelter operator chosen by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services through a competitive bid.

Norfolk officials said the “unexpected influx of a large number of families” poses many logistical challenges to the town and officials will develop strategies to manage potential impacts to the town. Norfolk officials added that they will have regular conversations with state officials to make sure the town’s concerns are heard and to work collaboratively on solutions that are in the “best interests of Norfolk.”