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Overcrowded prisons seek relief in a pastoral farm town. Residents worry about a prison overwhelming their rural life style

Amid the din of controversy surrounding the plan to put a medium-security prison here, the quieter questions of New Braintree are little heard: Is open space more urgent than prison beds, in the long term? Can a town of 800 residents coexist with a 500-bed prison facility? Green, rolling hills topped with clumps of trees stretch away from the town in all directions here.

The air is filled with the musty scent of freshly cut hay. There are no sidewalks, no pay phones, one store. The town center is little more than a post office and a Congregational church. Coyotes were spotted two weeks ago.

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At 4:30 every afternoon - just as the shift would be changing at the prison down the road a mile or two - Herb Pollard's dairy herd meanders down the blacktop from pasture to milking barn. It's a slow parade of black and white that stops traffic (three cars) for 20 minutes. Mr. Pollard is the ninth generation to run this family farm, established nearly 50 years before the nation was.

For him, and for many others in the town, the primary threat the prison poses is to a way of life.

``The way we are,'' says John Brennan, who moved here from from Cambridge, Mass., four years ago to plant a vineyard, ``we are some benefit to all the commonwealth.''

The development that he believes will follow from a prison threatens the open space, the wildlife, the farmland - dwindling in this state - and the watersheds for reservoirs that dot the region. ``When we change,'' he continues, ``that benefit is going to be ... ''

`` ... Pavement,'' adds his wife, Toni.

``It's really going to overwhelm us,'' says Debbie Morrison, sitting at the kitchen table of her log home. ``Prisons have to go somewhere, but they should go somewhere logical.''

By ``logical,'' she means a place with town water and sewers, a full-time police and fire department, a town dump, public transportation, and medical facilities, in a county that isn't already providing ``more than its share'' of prison beds (there is a medium-security facility in Gardner, also in Worcester County), in a western county, for that matter, where the prison overcrowding is most acute.

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``But their way of life isn't going to be altered at all by this prison,'' says Philip Johnston, head of the state's Executive Office for Human Services. ``A year after the opening of this facility, I confidently predict that the vast majority of the people of New Braintree will be comfortable with their new neighbor.''

The prison will be self-contained, the views of it buffered by greenery, the perimeter lights angled to minimize ``spillover,'' he says. Water and sewage can be provided on-site, according to state studies. Trash will be hauled away. Visitors will have to drive cars to get here.

And engineering and environmental experts enlisted by the town dispute the feasibility of adapting the dormitories to prison use and the wisdom of the state plan for a new septic system and water supply.

The fact that prisoners may vote in Massachusetts also raised alarms: Could the town government be taken over by inmates? A view of the matter by state lawyers says `no'.

Siting an adult prison is difficult, especially in a state with high employment and a healthy economy. Mr. Johnston has seen community resistance melt time and again - once a controversial facility is an accomplished fact.

But nowhere in the state's current expansion and new construction program - 16 sites - has it encountered such stiff resistance as in New Braintree, Johnston concedes. And the state is digging in.

``This is a test,'' Johnston says. The New Braintree prison ``has to be built ... because it's the right place to put a prison. And we have to demonstrate that we are not going to cave in to this kind of political pressure.''

Meanwhile, a lawsuit brought by citizens in New Braintree and surrounding counties to block the prison is pending, and opponents vow further legal action if the state begins eminent-domain proceedings to acquire the site.

``You don't shove these things down a community,'' says Tunney Lee, who worked for Gov. Michael Dukakis as director of the Division of Capital Planning and Operations. He's now head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's urban studies and planning department. ``But if you don't take firm action, you'll never get a site - never.''

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