Hampshire County sheriff candidates set to square off in first forum

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, Wednesday, Mar. 25, 2020. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/26/2022 8:56:38 PM
Modified: 7/26/2022 8:53:33 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Candidates for sheriff are running an active campaign, crisscrossing Hampshire County to introduce themselves to voters amid a public education push that is meant to boost statewide interest in sheriffs races.

The Easthampton Democratic City Committee will host a mask-optional candidate forum on Thursday, Aug. 4, from 7-9 p.m. in the second-floor conference room at 50 Payson Ave. The race’s three Democratic contenders are expected to participate.

There are no Republican candidates and an independent, John Vanasse, dropped out of the race in June. The Democratic primary on Sept. 6 will determine the only candidate for the general election ballot on Nov. 8.

Jackie Brousseau-Pereira, chair of the Democratic committee, will serve as moderator. Easthampton Media is planning to broadcast the forum live on cable channels 191 and 193, and a video will be available online at a later time.

The public can submit suggested questions to easthamptondems@gmail.com.

Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane is running for a second six-year term against two women who once worked for his administration at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction in Northampton: Yvonne Gittelson of Goshen, the state education department’s corrections program specialist, and Caitlin Sepeda of South Hadley, a corrections nurse in Berkshire County.

“I’m excited that there is a race this year and I think it’s important that there are two women running,” which is uncommon for the position in Hampshire County, Brousseau-Pereira said. “I think folks want to learn more about what happens in the jail. Who’s in there and how is it funded? … What are conditions like for inmates and staff? Are both of those sets of stakeholders feeling safe, listened to, feeling like their needs are being met?”

The candidates are vocal boosters of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts’ “Know Your Sheriff” statewide education campaign and filled out questionnaires that are available online at https://bit.ly/3S4bhOX.

Only 17% of Bay State voters can identify their county sheriff, according to an ACLU and Beacon Research poll released April 13, and 13% of participants in Hampshire County correctly identified Cahillane. Respondents also showed a lack of understanding about a sheriff’s job, pay and the fact that they are elected.

“I hope to discuss some of the innovative programs we’ve started recently, like our pizza project, our landscape design program, and the $167,473 grant we were awarded recently by the state Department of Education that will help bolster our education programs,” Cahillane said about the upcoming candidate forum.

The issue of mental health and substance abuse treatment in the jail is likely to come up as Sepeda continues to criticize the incumbent over his record. In a social media post last week, Sepeda wrote that those in her campaign “suspect [Cahillane] doesn’t truly understand the full spectrum of mental illness and the proper ways to address it.”

“While other facilities are adding mental health staff in droves, the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office has had the exact same number of mental health providers for more than 6 years despite a severe mental illness diagnosis of greater than 50% in the population,” Sepeda wrote. She said the jail needs “an actual mental health department made up of licensed staff, readily available for greater hours.”

Gittelson expressed a similar concern in a social media post last week, citing a recent state correctional funding report showing “that about 80% of those justice involved individuals at the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office have a substance use disorder.”

Cahillane said that “with a third of our staff dedicated to treatment services for the men in our care, we continue to provide a full range of mental health programs and services.” He pointed out that the Northampton jail was one of the first in the state to offer medication-assisted treatment to inmates with opioid-use disorders and the jail was federally recognized as an opioid treatment program last year.

Gittelson has criticized Cahillane’s acceptance of campaign donations from sheriff’s office employees. During the 2016 race, Gittelson notes on her blog, state campaign finance regulators made Cahillane, then the assistant superintendent of the jail, return $10,010 in donations from jail employees. Now that he is an elected official, different rules apply and he is allowed to accept donations from employees.

“[M]ost people would understand the implied pressure to contribute to the boss’s campaign. How does it look if you don’t?” Gittelson wrote of the current race. “To date, staff at the (sheriff’s office) have contributed more than $3,500 to the boss’s coffers … This isn’t just a matter of bad optics, it’s bad practice and a bad way to run a state agency whose employees are paid by the taxpayers.”

Cahillane said employees are free to exercise their rights by making donations to candidates and causes they support.

“I would hope that a candidate for public office, especially a person who proposes to be a Democrat, would not demand that public employees give up their First Amendment right to practice free speech and participate in election processes as they see fit, within the confines of state election laws,” Cahillane said.

More sheriff’s candidate forums are planned in the area next month, including one on Aug. 25 at 7 p.m. that is jointly sponsored by the Amherst and Northampton Leagues of Women Voters and Daily Hampshire Gazette. The forum will be held in person at the Northampton Center for the Arts, 33 Hawley St., and broadcast by Amherst Media and Northampton Open Media.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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