Guest column: Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi rebuts columnist, says jail is committed to treatment

  • In this Aug. 5 photo, bunk beds line the wall of a dormitory-style room at the Hampden County Sheriff's Department's minimum security, residential treatment facility in Springfield. AP

Published: 9/10/2019 6:00:14 PM

I offer the following response to Lois Ahrens’ guest column, “Treatment not jails,” which appeared in Aug. 18 Gazette.

Ms. Ahrens is entitled to her opinion; she is not entitled to her own set of facts.

She states, “Michael Ashe, the longtime sheriff of Hampden County, was an excellent salesman. He sold legislators on the idea that he could see into the future, and the future meant more incarceration.” She went on to say that the jail in Ludlow was built with enough room to house 1,800 men.

Well, the reality is Sheriff Ashe did see into the future. After the jail was built, we did in fact see our jail population increase to 2,100 individuals. Fortunately, today we house far fewer individuals. Diversion programs, which we fully support, are working, resulting in fewer people going to jail.

And yes, it is costly to keep individuals in jail, but the figure in Hampden County is not $100,000 annually, as she stated. It was $57,995 in fiscal 2018, making us one of the most cost-effective correctional institutions in all of Massachusetts.

If I wanted to fill my jail, would I invest $2 million annually in our After Care Center in Springfield? Each year, this center assists over 3,000 men and women who have been released from jail as they seek employment, housing, substance use disorder treatment, mental health services, education and many other services to help prevent them from coming back to jail. This center has been in operation for 23 years, and the result is we now have some of the lowest recidivism rates in the country.

We provide care and custody for individuals both pretrial and sentenced. Many with charges and convictions of murder, violent assault, domestic violence and serious gun and drug convictions. If we close all the jails and prisons, as her organization aims to accomplish, where does Ms. Ahrens propose we place these individuals?

And yes, after I offered to take and treat men who have been civilly committed under the Section 35 Civil Commitment law, we became the only facility doing so in Massachusetts from Worcester west. In one year, we have treated over 855 men from the region, giving them and their families a chance at a life free from addiction. Prior to opening our Stonybrook Stabilization and Treatment Centers, men civilly committed for addiction treatment in all of western Massachusetts were all transported some two and a half hours to eastern Massachusetts to be treated there.

Ask the families, loved ones and those we treated and you will find they are very grateful the Sheriff’s Department stepped up and established the two Stonybrook Stabilization and Treatment Centers. We begin detox in our Ludlow facility, then step the individuals down to our addiction center in Springfield, which was formerly a nursing home. They are then connected to providers in the community so the continuum of care extends long beyond their time with us.

The medical community, including the CEO of the region’s largest medical organization, Baystate Health’s Dr. Mark Keroack, is in full support of our program.

These individuals are not committed simply because of their unfortunate substance use disorder, as Ms. Ahrens would have you believe. They are committed because a loved one, family member or police officer saw that they were in “substantial risk of physical harm to self or others.”

These individuals are in need of an immediate intervention because they are determined to be in eminent danger of dying.

We are here to help. You could call it a “time out” to help them get back on their feet, get treatment, and receive the support they need to return to the community free from addiction.

I care deeply about the citizens of Hampden County, all of our citizens, especially those afflicted with harmful addictions. I take the calls from concerned family members looking for help with a loved one every day of the week. I do not and will not turn anyone away.

What I don’t care for, however, are individuals with an agenda misstating the facts and mischaracterizing me and my department’s intentions. I also don’t care for people using a public health crisis as a political football when people’s lives are at stake.

I’m proud of the work we do every day to change lives and help make our communities safer for everyone. And I’m appreciative of the fact that the citizens we serve see us as part of the solution, and not the problem.

I will continue to respond to the needs of these communities and the citizens who live there. Please join me in this effort.

Nick Cocchi is the sheriff of Hampden County.
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