Guest columnist Patrick J. Cahillane: A case for ‘smaller is smarter’ at Hampshire County Jail

  • Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane.

Hampshire County sheriff
Published: 10/5/2021 4:00:05 PM

When I started my career at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction some 40 years ago, one of my mentors and supervisors was a man named Robert “Bob” Schwobe of Southampton. Sadly, we lost Bob this past July, but I will never forget the lessons I learned from him and how one story in particular, brought to mind by this being the United Nations’ World Space Week, inspires me to do the right thing for my community.

Bob was a captain at the jail, located on Union Street in Northampton at the time, and I was a young officer who had not yet experienced much of the wider world. One evening, on what was then the 4 p.m.-midnight shift, Bob told me about his previous career working on the Space Program at Hamilton Standard in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Impressed, I asked what his job was. Bob’s enthusiastic response: to put men on the moon and return them safely to the Earth.

Years later, I would learn that Bob’s answer was the common reply for anyone, whether astronaut, engineer or maintenance technician, who worked on the Space Program during the heady days of our nation’s race to the moon.

That singularity of focus, that unification behind a common purpose, can also be applied to today’s employees of the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction. Our job, collectively, whether we work individually as a case manager, a corrections officer, or as the sheriff, is to decarcerate as many men to their communities and their families as public health and safety will allow.

Unlike the employees of NASA or its contractors, however, we don’t want our men returning.

With the goals of personal healing and recidivism reduction in mind, my office has adopted the concept of “meaningful incarceration,” the idea that successful re-entry into the community depends on successful pre-entry into our facility. The aim of meaningful incarceration is to offer our men an individualized plan for treatment, recovery and educational opportunities so that from day one of their stay, everyone at the Hampshire Sheriff’s Office is focused on giving the men in our care their best chance possible of rejoining their communities as productive citizens and as better, more connected family members.

Simply put, we work to help them leave in better condition than when they arrived.

This can be a tall order. Men placed in our care can decline our help and choose to contribute nothing toward their own recovery, and that can be frustrating. But what can make it especially challenging is that men who the courts send to our jail typically arrive with a variety of pre-existing conditions. For example, among the men in my care and custody:

■More than 60% meet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria for drug dependence or abuse.

■Approximately 20% have a serious mental illness.

■Approximately 13% have not finished high school or passed an equivalency exam.

■Only 10% have earned some college credits.

■Virtually all are economically disadvantaged and have personal histories involving abuse and neglect.

Considering that the average sentence at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction is 222 days, we have precious little time to address the failures of many other areas of our society.

Helping our men improve themselves is a tall order, indeed, but one of our advantages is that we are a small facility, agile and adaptive to the needs of our men and the communities we serve.

As David Skarbek, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Brown University, argues in his 2020 book “The Puzzle of Prison Order”: “smaller is better when it comes to jails and prisons.”

Skarbek writers, “In smaller prisons, officers and prisoners can more easily get to know each other and develop respectful relationships. Smaller prisons tend to have less bureaucratic hierarchy, leading to greater responsiveness to prisoner needs … Smaller prisons often have more opportunities for privacy and autonomy, leading to less conflict. Prisoners recognize all these advantages too: prisoners often report that in smaller prisons they feel less stress, safer, and more respected by staff.”

Another advantage of being a small facility is public accountability. As the elected sheriff, I am directly answerable to the people of Hampshire County for the condition of the facility and the safety of the people under its roof. Everything we do, we do in the name of the people of Hampshire County. We are part of this community and when things go well, I proudly share the success with the community and all my staff, united as we are in our common purpose; when things go wrong, I resolutely shoulder the responsibility.

The operation of our county jail stands in contrast to the state Department of Corrections (DOC), which oversees many large facilities by comparison, facilities “requiring more regimentation,” as Professor Skarbek argues, “and tend[ing] to take on an assembly line quality and the sense that officials are merely warehousing offenders.”

Another important difference between county jails and state prisons is that each is governed by a different set of state codes and regulations, contrary to common perception. And yet another important difference is that with state facilities, the only person directly accountable to the people is the governor, as the head of the state’s Executive Branch. No one who runs a state facility, no matter how well or how poorly they perform, is personally, directly answerable to the people and communities they serve.

At the Hampshire Sheriff’s Office, we take great pride in our partnerships with our local community agencies, and in our efforts to provide meaningful incarceration to the men our courts place in our care. As long as I am sheriff, the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction will stand for the principle that public safety is best served when each of the men in our care is treated with respect and kindness, the foundation for any sort of recovery, and offered programs that promote successful community reintegration.

We are a small jail, and that’s a good thing. We are a big-hearted jail, and that’s a great thing. And although our mission is not to put our men on the moon, we are steadfastly committed to helping them find a better direction of travel here on Earth.

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