At a tense meeting in Norfolk Wednesday night, residents and local officials expressed frustration over the sudden news that the state is opening an emergency shelter for 150 migrant families at the former Bay State Correctional Center.

Select Board Chair Jim Lehan said he learned about the shelter plans not from the Healey-Driscoll administration, but from social media.

“I was angry that we didn’t have prior notice,” Lehan told the roughly 300 people who gathered for the special Select Board meeting. “It’s their building [the state’s] and they don’t need our permission to use it, but it would have been nice to partner at the front end to understand what their plans were.”

The former medium-security prison, which closed in 2015, is state property and located on the grounds of MCI-Norfolk.

According to a fact sheet distributed at the meeting, the state plans to convert the prison into a state-contracted site for families on the emergency assistance waitlist. That entails moving some 150 migrants families, or about 450 people total, now staying at Logan Airport into the facility in mid-June.

“Today, we had extensive conversations with the state,” Lehan said, “and we know more now, but we have as many questions as we do answers.”

A large complex with coils of razor wire over the top of the walls.
Outside the former Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk, Mass., which has been vacant since 2015.
Marilyn Schairer GBH News

State Rep. Marcus Vaughn, a Republican whose district includes Norfolk, was at the meeting and said he too had been in the dark until last Friday. That's when he issued a letter to constituents alerting them of the shelter plans. He also criticized the governor's staff for not meeting with him and town officials sooner.

“I’m very disappointed,” Vaughn said. “We expect to get an updated fact sheet [with more details].”

During public comment, dozens of residents expressed shock, disbelief and even anger that the plan was put in motion without consulting the town. Most said they just wanted answers about the impact on schools and emergency services, pointing out that municipal budgets are already stretched thin.

A man holds up two signs reading "Save Norfolk: No shelter" while standing on a sidewalk.
Norfolk resident John Semas opposes the state's plan to locate a migrant shelter at a former state prison in the town.
Marilyn Schairer GBH News

Resident John Semas was among a small group of people donning shirts and placards that read “Save Norfolk: No Shelter.” He also complained that instead of offering further explanation about the plans for Bay State Correctional Center, Gov. Maura Healey left for a climate conference at the Vatican.

At the microphone, Semas was unapologetic about saying the plan would place an unfair burden on the small town of 11,000.

“Let’s face it, we don't want it here. We don't,” Semas said. “And, it doesn't make us bad people, it doesn't make me not compassionate, it doesn't make me a bad father.”

“Let’s face it, we don't want it here. We don't.”
Resident John Semas

Lauren Vives spoke to the financial burden the shelter could bring to a rural town with only two elementary schools, one ambulance, a small police and fire department and no grocery store.

“The proposition to increase out town’s population by 4% overnight is preposterous,” Vivas said, and that the plan shows “a lack of respect” for the town.

It’s unknown how many of the migrants are of school age and will be placed in the Norfolk school system, which includes two elementary schools and shares a regional middle school and King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham.

A person in a pink jacket speaks at a standing microphone in a large meeting room
Norfolk resident Taiese Hickman asks town select board members about how to protect migrant children from bullying in schools.
Marilyn Schairer GBH News

Resident Taiese Hickman pointed out that most of the migrants to be relocated to Norfolk are from Haiti and questioned how the children would be protected from bullying and racism.

“In a town that is 90% white, it's going to be very apparent who these children are,” Hickman said. “And, as you know, as one of the few Black families in this town, I feel obligated to ask this question because I don't want these children to be, you now, targets.”

Select Board Vice Chair Anita Mecklenburg said state and federal protections apply to all school students, regardless of their immigration status.

“Speaking with our educators, they're really committed to opening their classrooms and creating a safe space for these kids to be integrated into our schools in a really authentic way,” Mecklenburg said.

Select Board Chair Lehan told GBH News that Norfolk is rural community with no commercial industry and a property tax base that is 95% residential.

“People have perceptions of what this all means, so they feel threatened by all that,” he said, adding “we’ve got to work on this because they’re coming.”

“We’ve got to work on this because they’re coming.”
Select Board Chair Jim Lehan

According to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the dorm-like building has shared bathrooms and showers, a cafeteria, a gymnasium and a large common room. It's been unoccupied for nearly a decade, but the state says the building is in good condition. As part of the retrofit, razor wire surrounding the building will be removed.

A sign for Bay State Correctional Center rises from the grass by a road.
The entrance to the Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk, Mass.
Marilyn Schairer GBH News

The shelter will operate 24/7 and will contract with local vendors for certain services, such as catering, cleaning, laundry and security. Families will be able leave and return to the campus as needed prior to a nightly curfew, aligned with policies in place at other overflow shelters across the state, including those in Cambridge, Quincy, Revere and a future one in Lexington.

Resident Lucy Bullock-Sieger said she thought using a vacant state-owned facility as a shelter was a good idea and she wants it known that Norfolk is not a town of fear. She said she hopes that solutions are found that work for everyone.

“And keeping these families in mind,” she said. “Because I can’t imagine being the mom of young children and trying to find a better life.”

The emergency shelter site is expected to operate for six months to one year.