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Guest column by Patrick J. Cahillane: Premature mass release of inmates is not safe

  • Sheriff Patrick Cahillane talks about measures to reduce exposure to the new coronavirus at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Gazette file photo

Published: 3/27/2020 5:31:50 PM

My heart aches for my Hampshire County community at this time. I was brought up to care about people and family, so I am distressed at the misinformation, or misguided information, that is being given to some of the most vulnerable among us.

For example, some of the clients at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction have been told by attorneys or others that they are going to be released. I would love nothing more than to release everyone, and then I could send my staff home to the safety of their own houses.

My staff and I, however, are essential for public safety and will remain on duty. That is our responsibility as public safety officials, to work for the good of the citizens of Hampshire County. Everyone on my staff is dealing with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as dealing with the stress of our inmate population.

That said, I cannot accept that intelligent people, people of good will, think it is a good idea to fight the pandemic by releasing people into the community when the community has no plan for their safety.

Currently before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is a lawsuit, filed by the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the American Civil Liberties Union, that calls for the premature release of certain incarcerated individuals, based on no established criteria or protocols, other than their own opinion. This would be a dangerous practice, one that I believe undermines, perhaps unintentionally, our system of criminal justice.

I want to be absolutely clear on this point: The only entity that can revise or revoke a sentenced individual is the court of jurisdiction. As sheriff, I have the authority to classify individuals to different levels of custody — medium security, minimum security, electronic monitoring in the community, for example — once they are remanded by the court. But there is no legal mechanism by which I can alter a sentence. I can’t release anyone.

During the past few weeks, nine individuals have posted bail and are no longer housed at the jail, and four others have been returned to the community under the strict supervision of electronic monitoring. My office is preparing others for similar reclassification processes in the days to come. They will not be released; they will be safely stepped-down in classification. Those that made bail were properly adjudicated through our well-established court proceedings, and those who remain under sentence on electronic monitoring have been rigorously vetted by my staff and reclassified on my authority. All were thoroughly screened by my medical department, and all demonstrated that they had a safe place to go in the community.

If this lawsuit prevails, and some sort of premature mass release is ordered, I will no longer be able to guarantee the health, safety and stability of those individuals who would be re-entering our communities at this pivotal moment. My mission is to take individuals who are sent to me by the courts and, through a variety of treatment, educational and job-training programs, return them to the community better than when they arrived. A court-ordered mass release would be destructive to the order that we need during this pandemic.

Many of the approximately 200 men in my care and custody are substance abusers. While they are housed at my facility, they have access to our medication-assisted treatment program for opioid use disorder.

Not so in the community. At the present time, many programs are shuttered and public transportation is limited.

If released prematurely, and without a structured plan, many would likely use again, commit crimes to feed their habit, and be at a much higher risk of overdosing. This would further strain our public health and safety systems in communities that are ill-prepared to receive these men.

Many of the men in my care and custody are homeless. At the Jail and House of Correction, they have 24/7 access to medical care, three meals a day, and roof over their head, in a humane, noncrowded situation.

Not so in the community, where social safety nets are stretched thin.

Many of the men in my care and custody are here because they abused their domestic partners. If they are released prematurely, into a stressful situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t guarantee the safety of their victims.

In the scenario of a pandemic, the likelihood of recidivism seems high.

I’m not arguing the merits of incarceration. But I am saying that with the precautions we have taken, the changes in standard operating procedures we have made, and the ongoing education of everyone — staff and inmate alike — about COVID-19 and the techniques to limit its spread, we have, so far, and so far as we know, kept the virus out of our facility.

So far.

The men in my care and custody are sent to me as punishment, not for punishment. Release Day is an important day for all of us. Similar to a graduation day, Release Day is the culmination of all the progress an inmate has made since their first day of incarceration. While they are here, they are treated with respect and compassion, provided food, shelter and health care, and given access to educational opportunities, as well as medication-assisted treatment and mental health care, all designed from the beginning to make their transition back to their communities as smooth and safe as possible, for themselves, and their loved ones, and for the greater community.

This is a time for thoughtful decisions. This is not the time to exploit a public health crisis in pursuit of a short-sighted agenda. A knee-jerk reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, like the mass release suggested by this lawsuit, would do far more harm than good to the men in my care, and, I believe, would place an even greater burden on the people of Hampshire County, and ultimately compromise everybody’s safety.

Patrick J. Cahillane is the Hampshire County Sheriff.


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