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Temporary court has room to breathe

  • Brenda Dedinas is the Head Administrative Assistant of Probate and Family Court in her new space on Munson St. Recorder/Paul Franz

    Brenda Dedinas is the Head Administrative Assistant of Probate and Family Court in her new space on Munson St. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Lawyers Jon Heyman and David Simanski utilize one of the private conference rooms in the temporary courthouse on Munson St.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Lawyers Jon Heyman and David Simanski utilize one of the private conference rooms in the temporary courthouse on Munson St. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Lawyers David Simanski and Jon Heyman utilize one of the conference rooms in the temporary courthouse on Munson St.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Lawyers David Simanski and Jon Heyman utilize one of the conference rooms in the temporary courthouse on Munson St. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Brenda Dedinas is the Head Administrative Assistant of Probate and Family Court in her new space on Munson St. Recorder/Paul Franz

    Brenda Dedinas is the Head Administrative Assistant of Probate and Family Court in her new space on Munson St. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Brenda Dedinas is the Head Administrative Assistant of Probate and Family Court in her new space on Munson St. Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Lawyers Jon Heyman and David Simanski utilize one of the private conference rooms in the temporary courthouse on Munson St.  Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Lawyers David Simanski and Jon Heyman utilize one of the conference rooms in the temporary courthouse on Munson St.  Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Brenda Dedinas is the Head Administrative Assistant of Probate and Family Court in her new space on Munson St. Recorder/Paul Franz

GREENFIELD — For decades, those who used the Greenfield courthouse found themselves jostling for space as the building seemed to grow smaller around them.

Lawyers met with clients in corners, stairwells and hallways and used each others’ backs as a hard surface to sign documents. Witnesses, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, victims and defendants passed in the halls, encounters that were often awkward and sometimes dangerous. People passing the building on the Hope Street sidewalk paused as prisoners were led in from the street in shackles and jumpsuits. Court clerks jogged upstairs and down to bring documents between the basements and their offices, where their overflowing storage closets could only fit a couple years of files. Those with business at the clerk’s counter found a few cramped square feet to work at, and no room for a line.

Things have been much different since the courts moved out of the 1930s Main Street courthouse and into their temporary home at 101 Munson St. It was designed to address the issues of the old courthouse, and make things function more smoothly while the old location undergoes a three-year $60 million renovation and addition.

Now that they’ve had a month to get used to the new building after the Feb. 18 move, people who frequent the courts are finding it much more accommodating.

“The best thing for (attorneys) is that we now have a place to meet with our clients,” said Greenfield attorney Timothy Flynn. “There’s always a conference room open. That’s invaluable.”

Despite the attorney-client privilege, a private conversation was nigh impossible in the old building if they couldn’t find an unoccupied room in which to meet. Flynn said that was a rare occurrence to be able to meet with a client behind closed doors in the old court.

Flynn said research is a lot easier, too, now that the Franklin Law Library has more room for its ever-expanding collection of statutes and case law.

In April, the library will be even better equipped to help the public. The court will be one of two in the state to pilot a new “court services” program. The program adds a full-time position to help people navigate the legal system and find the resources they need, whether its case law to prepare for court, or help for a family member struggling with drugs or mental illness.

Flynn said he’s also glad to see that the building’s heat works more consistently.

“I used to feel ill after sitting in that old, cold court for a couple hours,” said Flynn.

Others agreed the temporary courthouse is healthier, with its new ventilation, proper climate control and overall cleanliness.

“Before we moved, I have to say, half the district court staff on the lower level was sick,” said Register of Probate and Family Court John Merrigan. “In the final week, when we were pulling all the files and moving the furniture, it stirred up a lot of debris and caused respiratory issues.”

Safer

The temporary courthouse is not only healthier, it’s also safer.

“It’s a much safer environment for everyone,” said Assistant Chief of Security Mark Wickles.

Court security is strengthened with a slew of surveillance cameras, and electric locks that can be opened with a pass-card or locked down remotely.

The building also has a secure entrance for prisoners, and separate hallways for court employees and members of the public.

“We used to unload prisoners right on Hope Street, bring them over the sidewalk and walk them right through the (public) hallways,” Wickles continued. “We never knew if someone wanted to communicate with them, or if somebody was upset and wanted to confront them.”

These potential run-ins were a real concern, he said, with court security dealing with confrontations, some involving violence, on a regular basis in the old building. He said there was also the possibility that someone could pass contraband to a prisoner, though it happened much less frequently.

“People don’t have to feel as nervous when coming to court now,” Wickles added.

Now, detainees are driven into a sally-port, which closes behind them before they’re unloaded and the interior doors open. They’re brought up from the basement through secure hallways, and into a separate, enclosed booth on the side of the courtroom for arraignments.

There are also five sturdy holding cells in the basement, plus a padded room for unstable detainees.

The basement level also hosts office space for the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, for the convenience of prosecutors.

Space for public

There’s also more space for the public to use, whether they’re representing themselves or using the court offices for research purposes.

The new, combined district and superior court clerks’ offices are much bigger than their old locations, and there are tables and comfortable chairs for those who need to go over documents or fill out paperwork.

There’s now plenty of room to store the courts’ paperwork, too.

“I used to have to go to two different floors to get files,” said Brenda Dedinas, head administrative assistant for the register of probate and family court.

In the old court, probate records back to 1985 were close at hand in a next-door storage room, but going back further required a trip to the basement or sub-basement. Now, records all the way back to the 1950s are located right next to the office, with room to store the next five years’ worth. Older documents back to the 1890s are in clean storage rather than the dingy, utilitarian basements of the old building.

The other courts’ clerks had to deal with small storage spaces and scattered records, as well. They, too, now have plenty of storage space right off of their offices.

While the records are more well organized, the building itself is more organized, too.

Organized for efficiency

Four courtrooms and several conference rooms surround a large second floor lobby, with several benches on which to wait. The old courtrooms were on different floors, and seating was sparse.

Judges’ chambers are adjacent to each other, making it easier for them to confer with each other.

While the logistics go a long way toward making the court an easier place to work, it’s the little things that boost morale.

“Everything’s nicely lit, we have larger desks, and it’s very clean,” said Dedinas. Her words were echoed by many, though most weren’t authorized to go on the record.

Even something as simple as having the office’s printer, fax machine, copier and other equipment next to each other, and having an electrical outlet for each one, makes a clerk’s work easier. In the old office, using one piece of equipment often meant having to unplug another, said one employee who preferred not to be named.

While people are enjoying the well-lit, spacious, clean accommodations, there was something to be said about the grandeur of the 1930s courthouse, even if it was showing its age.

“I miss the old ‘Perry Mason’ courtroom,” said one employee in Superior Court before proceedings. “There are no windows, either.”

The temporary courtroom features brand new wood fixtures and furniture, plain walls, and fluorescent lighting in its low ceiling. Gone are the old court’s fine stone and woodwork, marble floors and the chandeliers that hung from its high ceiling, as well as the large windows that overlooked Hope Street.

Though stately, the old court wasn’t designed with acoustics in mind. Those involved in the proceedings had to speak up, lest their words get lost to those high ceilings.

The new courtrooms have in-ceiling speakers, and microphones throughout. They’re so sensitive that you can hear the clerk shuffling papers on his desk from the farthest bench.

Though the courts will move back to Main Street when the new building is finished, they won’t have to give up the finer points of their temporary home. Many of the features found on Munson Street will be included in the new facility.

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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