Guest Columnist Patrick J. Cahillane: Rocky Hill Re-entry Collaborative: A plan for safe decarceration


Published: 7/4/2021 6:35:07 AM

In 2007, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study titled “Release From Prison — A High Risk of Death for Former Inmates.” The study concluded that “former inmates were at high risk for death after release from prison, particularly during the first two weeks,” from such causes as drug overdose, suicide and a lapse in care for chronic health conditions.

The study suggested that the risk could be reduced with “interventions aimed at … planning for the transition from prison to the community, including the use of halfway houses, work-release programs [and] drug-treatment programs.” Overall public safety could be enhanced by such interventions, the study also found.

Around that same time, I joined a contingent of criminal justice professionals from across the commonwealth to discuss topics surrounding safe releases to our communities, as well as other issues concerning correctional priorities.

After months of meetings, part of the group’s findings determined that a pre-release re-entry center would best serve western Massachusetts if it were centrally located at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction in Northampton. Although the project never received funding, the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance did design such a facility in coordination with the staff of the Hampshire Sheriff’s Office.

I have never given up on the concept of a re-entry center. I believe that such a facility would not only meet the guidelines set forth by the state’s Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018, but would be the right and humane thing to do because it would help give incarcerated people their best chance at rejoining their communities as productive citizens and family members.

Toward that end, and to continue my office’s commitment to evolving county correctional practices, I have entered into an agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Parole to provide interim housing for individuals who are being paroled from various facilities in the Commonwealth.

We are calling this program The Rocky Hill Re-entry Collaborative. It is located in a repurposed building outside the secure perimeter on the main campus of the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, and it will provide a continuum of care for men who have been paroled by the Massachusetts Parole Board but are having difficulty finding permanent housing, or are waiting for a permanent placement, treatment programs and job opportunities. Three parolees have arrived at the collaborative and have begun the process of re-entering the community.

It is important to note that these free citizens will not be in the custody of the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, but will be monitored by the Massachusetts Parole Department and subject to the terms of their parole.

The building in question, formerly our minimum security building, is designed, and meets all life and safety codes, to house 38 people comfortably, in a college dormitory-style setting. Because the coronavirus necessitates physical distancing, the population will be limited to 16 at this time, with services provided by the sheriff’s office based on an agreement with the Executive Office of Public Safety, and by ServiceNet, the third partner in our collaborative.

Men admitted to The Rocky Hill Re-entry Collaborative will be able to access services in the community, as well as programs offered at our Community Corrections Center in Northampton, without straining already overburdened shelters and service organizations in our area. This will enable Rocky Hill residents to continue their personal healing, improve their education and job skills, and allow themselves the time to make a smoother, more secure transition back into the community, and help the community embrace their return.

A 2014 study conducted by the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis titled “From Mass Incarceration to Smart Decarceration” concluded that “[I]f decarceration isn’t carried out thoughtfully, humanely and justly, the United States could easily revert back to mass incarceration and practices.”

This is the type of collaborative that I believe can bring about systemic change in our criminal justice practices by addressing the critical need for housing, programming and basic support for up to 90 days for men who might otherwise be decarcerated to the street, where shelter beds are scarce, job opportunities are limited, and the likelihood of recidivism is high.

For corrections to work, as the people rightly expect, corrections officials must be active participants in crafting solutions. My office volunteering to be one of the state’s first pilot sites for medication-assisted treatment for opioid-use disorder is indicative of our progressive approach. By using this building in the manner described, in collaboration with public and private agencies, both state and local, we will help ease the decarceration of men back into their communities, back to their families, by creating a continuum of care and stability during a vulnerable time of transition.

Hampshire County has a well-earned reputation as a welcoming community, and we should extend that helping hand to those returning from incarceration.

I was elected to serve the public safety interests of the people of Hampshire County. I believe creating The Rocky Hill Re-entry Collaborative will do just that.

Patrick J. Cahillane is the Hampshire County Sheriff.

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