Lois Ahrens: Smaller jails should equal less in taxes to pay for them

Published: 10/18/2021 12:48:54 PM

I agree with Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane (“A case for ‘smaller is smarter’ at Hampshire County Jail,” Oct. 6.) that smaller jails, and I add smaller prisons, are better.

However, when jails lock up fewer people — as the Hampshire County jail now does, as jails all over the commonwealth now do (the state occupancy for jails is at 58%) — our tax dollars to pay for them should also get smaller.

Right now, half a billion of our tax dollars go to keeping approximately 6,000 people locked in Massachusetts’ jails. More than half of the 6,000 people have been convicted of nothing. The Hampshire County jail has a capacity for 287 people. According to the Department of Corrections as of Sept. 6, 2021, there were 37 people sentenced and 92 held pretrial at the jail. A total of 129 people, or 45% of capacity.

The 2021 budget for the Hampshire County sheriff’s department is $15,105,790. You read that right.

Additionally, the Hampshire County sheriff’s contract with phone provider ICSolutions charges people incarcerated, or more likely their loved ones, 14 cents a minute, or $2.10 for a 15-minute call. Seventy-eight percent of all the money generated from the calls goes back to the Sheriff’s Department for so-called “site-commissions,” also known as kickbacks.

Other than Hampden County, with 85% kickbacks, Hampshire County has the second highest “commissions” in the state. Sheriffs say the money generated by the calls to family members go to “programs.” One has to wonder if $15 million isn’t enough to cover the cost instead of family members paying for programs for their loved ones.

I am all for very, very small jails with fewer people incarcerated. I would rather jails get smaller and our taxes go for the things that will keep the people out of jail: substance use treatment on demand and community-based programs, affordable housing, free vocational training for adults, quality mental health services and investments in early free comprehensive childhood education to name a few of the strategies we know lead to less incarceration and much better lives.

Lois Ahrens

Northampton

The writer is the founding director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project. A national organization based in Northampton.




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