. Interviews on Valley Free Radio, “Civil Politics”

Dear Friends--yesterday I recorded an interview with Valley Free Radio, which will be broadcast tonight (8/19). Beforehand, they sent a list of questions to help prepare, and these are my responses. The questions are excellent, and reveal quite a bit about the Hampshire facility and my approach to the Sheriff's position. Although the actual interview did not follow this format, we touched on a lot of the topics here. Thank you for your time and interest in reading.  Yvonne

2022 Hampshire County Sheriff’s  race.  Interviews on Valley Free Radio, “Civil Politics” pre-recorded (via Zoom) Thursdays,  aired the following day (Fridays at 7 pm).  WWW.ValleyFreeRadio.org.  WXOJ-LP 103.3 FM.. Host:   Michael Dow.  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

8/18 7:30 pm Zoom.  Yvonne Gittelson, aired live on Friday 8/19 and recording available Monday 8/22

DRAFT QUESTIONS from VFR: Candidate Yvonne Gittelson, answering:

(**Please do keep in mind, no challenger may remain working at a facility while challenging a sitting Sheriff who is running for reelection. My information is the very best I can gather, provided by contacts still working there. But only the Sheriff has access to the most recent data.)

  1. Massachusetts is a little different from other areas when it comes to County Government. What is the role of Sheriff in Hampshire County.  (Civil processes, evictions,  constables, number  facilities, major tasks, stake holders, Departments under control, number of employees, number of incarcerated, civil asset forfeiture ?) In Massachusetts mostly and in Hampshire County particularly, the role of Sheriff is primarily that of administrator in ensuring the safe operation of the correctional facility, smooth running of the office of Civil Process (which handles evictions and process-serving), coordination with the Office of Community Corrections, safe and smooth operation of the Regional Lockup Unit in coordination with all the local Police Departments, coordination with the Departments of Probation and Parole, and outreach and education in the community. The HSO currently has approximately 175 employees and 125 persons in custody. The Sheriffs in MA do not generally participate in day-to-day policing in their counties unless assistance is requested by the local town and city police departments but can provide supportive assistance in times of emergency or as requested by those departments and as Sheriff staffing permits. There isn’t much coordination with town Constables, but there certainly can be as necessary. I’ll be a Sheriff who attends town meetings around the county for greater communication and transparency. The major task of the Sheriff is to maintain a safe correctional facility where those in custody get the treatment and education they need to emerge healthier, safer, and making better choices than they did upon arrest. This is our duty to them, and our responsibility to the greater community. Recidivism hurts everyone, and there are rarely discussions about how to reduce it. The major stakeholders are the community of 160,000 Hampshire County residents, the staff who do these difficult jobs, and the justice-involved individuals and their families—and their families are rarely brought into the conversations around criminal justice reform. When someone is locked up, the whole family does time. And those who are never brought into the conversations are the survivors of the crimes committed by the people in our custody. It’s time we had some serious discussions about restorative justice and what that should and could mean in our county.
  1. What license, or degree or credential is required for the position? No specific license, degree, or credential is required to be Sheriff. Historically, Sheriffs have come from law enforcement or Corrections backgrounds but that is changing. Sheriff Garvey was an educator, and Sheriff Ashe (Hampden) was a social worker—both were considered transformative and highly effective in changing the directions of their respective offices, and both represent the direction that the MA legislature and the citizens of MA have indicated that they want the Sheriffs offices to evolve to, that of prioritizing mental health, education, and substance use treatment programming and rehabilitation, with an emphasis on community reentry.
  1. How many correctional facilities have you been associated with/in what role? How many employees supervised, for how many years? I worked directly in the Hampshire Sheriff’s Office as the Education Coordinator for 4.5 years. Now I oversee all the county jails, state prisons, and DYS facilities that the Dept. of Education funds, currently about 2 dozen facilities, including 85 program directors, advisors, and teachers who serve approximately 1000 persons in custody. I also oversee 4 community programs to which formerly incarcerated individuals typically transfer after release. In working at the state level and seeing the “big picture” of how all the pieces can fit together, I know we can do much better in Hampshire, because I’ve seen it elsewhere and want to bring overdue improvements to my county.
  1. In your view, what function(s) at the Hampshire’s Sheriff’s office need to be reviewed and enhanced when resources permit. What would be your top priority? My top priority—and not just for when resources permit—but immediately, will be to make the HSO a facility where people want to work again. The HSO is hemorrhaging staff, much faster than can be replaced, both veteran and newly hired. Staff morale is critically low, and it is a sad and hard place to work right now. Staff is openly vocal inside about how they do not support the current administration, but are tight-lipped on the record, for fear of retaliation. All difficulties currently facing the HSO stem from the lack of vision and leadership, and the internal sense among staff that the system is rigged against the earnest and talented staff who do this difficult work every day. The traditionally accepted practice of giving jobs and promotions to friends and connections of the Sheriff must stop. We must create a system where the HSO is a meritocracy and people are hired and promoted based on measurable qualifications and performance outcomes. These are state jobs with good pay and benefits, and that is the expectation. Right now, some of the best and hardest working staff have left and are continuing to leave because they cannot get promoted when friends of the Sheriff are brought in from the outside, taking promotions and top spots away from those who were working inside to earn them. There is no incentive to work hard, to bring creative ideas to the attention of higher-ups, or to want to innovate at all. This is a recipe for low morale and unsafe working conditions because people take shortcuts just to survive in this toxic workplace. In fact, it’s at such a critical level that staff turn on each other in struggles for professional relevance.
  1. We understand that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sets the budget and funds the Sheriff’s office- generally on July 1st. What other funds does the Sheriff’s Office receive? The Hampshire Sheriff’s Office has the lowest budget allocation of any county facility other than Dukes and Nantucket, and this Sheriff has been unable to increase this allocation, while similarly-sized facilities have steadily increased. The Sheriff’s Office receives additional income from several grant sources: for Education, for mental health programming, for substance use disorder treatment, for a parenting program, for health education, and more. Grant funding could be significantly increased, especially for training opportunities for officers. The Sheriff’s Office also receives income from its own Office of Civil Process, because people who need papers served on others pay for that service. The Sheriff’s Office also receives money from those in custody by charging them over and above the baseline costs for phone and commissary; I think this is wrong and will stop this immediately. The Sheriff’s Office also operates a Deputy Sheriff’s Association, whose members pay $30 annually to participate. I would like to see the Hampshire Sheriff’s Office create community fundraisers for worthy causes such as 5k Walk/Run events, etc. where the proceeds go back into our communities. Sheriff Cocchi in Hampden County does this very well.
  1. What are incarcerated men (is it all men?) charged for? (phone, commissary, TV?) The HSO is a male-only facility except for women who might be temporarily detained in the RLU until their arraignment at the next possible court appearance. Phone charges are 14 cents a minute which are charged to the families of the person in custody. The HSO currently makes a 78% commission on these calls. Commissary is handled through Keefe Commissary, and the Keefe Group has IC Solutions as a subsidiary, which is the communications provider the HSO uses. All commissary products offered to persons in custody are at significant markup compared to what citizens in the community pay for the same products. No one at the HSO is charged for tv, and they have cable in all the common areas of the housing units except for the Special Management Unit (Administrative Segregation/solitary). Persons in custody (other than the SMU) may purchase their own personal television, which must be clear plastic and facility-supplied through commissary purchase.
  1. What is the breakdown in the facility between prison and jail functions. (sentenced and serving time, vs. held pretrial detention, on bail) Similar to most county facilities in MA, the breakdown is currently ~70% pretrial detention and ~30% sentenced individuals serving their time. There are approximately a dozen individuals who have been in pretrial detention for over 2 years. Sentenced individuals have the choice of participating in programming, for which they receive 10 days of Good Time per month, time off their sentence. Or they may choose not to participate and serve their whole sentence. Some “participate” in name only, just to get the Good Time, and may not be serious about their own reform or recovery, unfortunately.
  1. Are the facilities workers unionized? If so which groups, and how many workers in each group? (Looking for full head count- including w-9. 03 consultants, Doctors, mental health specialists, clerical workers, correctional officers etc). How diverse is each group? Only regular officers and Sergeants are unionized, which likely amounts to approximately 70 individuals. Lieutenants and above are not union-protected, and non-security staff are in “bargaining units” which do not have the same authority or power as a union would. There are several different bargaining groups, but none have much power. In 2020, the Sheriff furloughed “non-essential” non-security staff 20% for 12 weeks. None of these groups are “diverse,” either racially/ethnically, or in terms of open sexual orientation or gender identity. When I am Sheriff, I will invite SEIU or another AFL-CIO union to come in to organize non-security staff, as they are in some of the other county facilities. I would also offer union membership to Lieutenants, and I will remove the distinction between Sheriff’s employees and grant-funded employees. I will also offer ongoing DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) professional development and training to all staff.
  2. What do you believe the role of the Sheriff’s Office is in enforcement of federal immigration law? Virtually none. Immigration is a federal matter, and I will be a locally-elected county Sheriff entrusted with enforcing state law. Federal immigration authorities need to do their own immigration enforcement. If someone has committed a felony and is in my custody and is undocumented, I may be asked to cooperate with federal authorities, which I will do as necessary. Northampton is a sanctuary city, which means we will not house ICE detainees, since our facility is located here.
  1. Voting rights. Access to voting for those who are eligible. How do you currently accomplish this.  Is it adequate, in your opinion?  What will you need to do to meet the Voting Rights Act going into effect in 2023. I’m a former Civics and Government teacher so this issue is near and dear to my heart. Most pretrial detainees are eligible to vote, and we will make sure to help them understand their rights and to get them registered to vote and to obtain mail-in ballots. Beyond that, I want to help them understand that voting matters, and they should get involved and interested in the issues and candidates on the ballot. When I am Sheriff, you can bet that I personally will be providing voter education materials to any of the eligible people in my custody and holding forums on the issues.
  1. What is the future of corrections in Massachusetts? (Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018 will move services into the Community?) Is the Sheriff’s Office moving in that direction? Although this has been part of the conversation for years now, I see little evidence that the HSO is truly moving in the direction of Community Corrections, despite what the incumbent may say. There is no internal articulation between the main facility and the Office of Community Corrections, and the staff from these 2 offices don’t even know each other. When I am Sheriff, the I will remove the separation between these 2 components so that as people in custody step down in levels of security, the referrals to the next step will be seamless. We need more wraparound services on the outside so that when people are fully released back into the community, they have support from people they know who understand their experience in custody and are not just given a sheet with some phone numbers and websites of community contacts. People with substance-use disorder need significant and ongoing support after incarceration. It is clear that the future of Corrections is going to look much more like the model of Probation and Parole as currently implemented, with people on electronic monitoring bracelets and regular check-ins with supervising Correctional professionals. Supervised custody in the community is the future of Corrections and we need a Sheriff with an innovative vision for creative solutions, which has been sorely lacking for the last 5+ years. The Sheriff’s Office can only implement what the courts authorize, however—so first and foremost, that type of custody will have to be specified by the judges imposing sentences.
  1. What classifications of incarcerated do you generally have? ( # minimum/ #maximum security, % mental health predominant, % Alcohol and Substance abuse?) Should equal total incarcerated number. Using the current number of 125 in custody, there are approximately 6 in Minimum Security/Pre-Release, approximately 86 in Pretrial (Maximum Security), and 33 in Medium Security. In general terms, approximately half have diagnosed mental health issues, but many are undiagnosed, especially with re: anxiety and depression. Approximately 70% have substance use disorders but many deny that their use falls into the disorder category. Of those with admitted or diagnosed substance use disorders, alcohol is still the predominant substance in use, though opioid use disorder has a higher mortality rate after release from custody. Alcohol detoxification upon booking must be medically supervised and severe alcohol withdrawal is much more dangerous than opioid withdrawal.
  1. Inmate ratio to correctional officers? Inmate ration to administration (Captains and above) There are approximately 125 persons in custody and approximately 105 Correctional Officers. There are 6 Captains and presently no Major. There are between 14-18 Lieutenants. Ranks at the HSO are: Officer, Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Major. There are a couple of Primary Lieutenants, also.
  1. On your website it states that visitors are still prevented from coming to the facility. Is this still true, or does the Sheriff’s website need to be updated? Visitors are still not permitted into the facility other than attorneys and clergy. All family visits are conducted via phone and video yet we have abundant outdoor space where this could be accomplished safely. Which begs the question: with no outside visitors, how are drugs and other contraband still coming into the facility?
  1. Covid caused many correctional facilities to release inmates. How many (%) did you release and is your census still down by that number? The HSO was at approximately 225 just before Covid and is at ~125 now. The number has remained relatively constant since the Covid outbreak, when almost half the population in custody was released. At one point it dipped below 100.
  1. Have you re-organized or re-engineered how services were provided in an organization? Briefly described which function re-organized, the goal of the reorganization and whether it was successful. How did you measure the success? When I was at the HSO, I reorganized the offering of classes and programs by offering classes in the evenings and at times not previously available. The goal was to increase student enrollment and participation, and we achieved that. After Covid we had to resume face-to-face classes but organized by housing unit because we could not mix populations. This meant we had to offer classes in a one-room schoolhouse type of configuration, which is very challenging since the academic levels of our students can range from 2nd grade to college-level. Making these changes required a flexible mindset and creative thinking. I measured success by enrollment and gains made in reading levels or High School Equivalency attainment.
  1. Recently- a National Sheriff’s Association has been in the news. It is the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA).  Are you, or were you , a member? How many of your staff are members?  Do you belong to any other Sheriff’s Associations and for how long? I am not a member, but I have seen and answered the Sheriff’s survey they require for membership. At the present time, I am choosing not to join this organization but I agree with many of their principles and with the spirit of protecting the rights and liberties that the framers attempted to safeguard in the drafting of the Constitution. I’m a member of the Correctional Education Association, I have attended women in Corrections conferences, I read Correctional publications avidly, and I look forward to joining the MA Sheriff’s Association and other Sheriff’s groups when I am elected.
  1. Do you attend professional conferences? Which ones? Do you travel out of State for them? Yes, I attend Women in Corrections conferences, Correctional Education Conferences, Adult Education Conferences, and have participated in a 5 month series of training workshops on Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I also recently completed a fresh Master’s degree in Leadership and Management, and was awarded the Graduate Student Leadership Award by the President and faculty.
  1. In 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 Sexual harassment or assault incidents were reported (a few each year) at the Hampshire County facility. Mostly they were categorized as “unsubstantiated”. In 2019, 2020, 2021 no incidents were reported in any category. Is this accurate for the organization, or has the website not been updated? I am so glad you asked this question. I believe this information is quite inaccurate. I am aware that several incidents took place that were not reported. I am aware of staff-inmate incidents, and staff-staff inappropriate relationships (superior officers and subordinate staff) which also qualify as PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act, federal law) violations and/or inappropriate workplace relationships that undermine and interfere with the orderly running of the facility. In one instance, a staff member was allowed to quietly resign, and the matter was never investigated. In another instance a staff member was reinstated, despite the matter being proven and admitted to.
  1. When was the facility last audited? By whom? How did it do? The facility is routinely audited by the DOC, several times a year. The audit dates are known well in advance and the areas to be audited are clearly specified beforehand. Few facilities ever completely “fail” these audits, and even when deficiencies are noted, the facility is given opportunities to address the areas found to not meet DOC standards. For weeks prior to these upcoming audits, staff and those in custody are enlisted to prepare in order to make the facility look good. I would prefer surprise, random visits and observations, to make sure we are really doing what we say we’re doing, and to hold us accountable at all times and not just for these pre-arranged visits, which often resemble a dog and pony show and are quite different from the facility at other times.
  1. Is the facility accredited and if so, by what organization? Who does the review and how did it do? In the instances of 2 accreditations the incumbent likes to brag about, the ACA (American Correctional Association) and NCCHC (National Commission on Correctional Health Care), voters should know that these accreditations are paid for by the facility, causing the objectivity of their evaluations to be called into question. Most courts do not accept these accreditations as dispositive proof that constitutionally minimum standards have been met, or as an affirmative defense when a facility is charged with negligence. Courts have often found significant violations even when a facility is accredited. Average costs are approximately $10,000 per accreditation, and involve additional yearly fees to maintain the accreditation. Both agencies include standards that review the administrative procedures of services provided to those in custody, and not necessarily the quality of any of the services themselves. Neither agency provides ongoing monitoring or compliance oversight, and the documents reviewed by the accrediting agency are those prepared and provided by the facility itself.
  1. Any other questions you would like us to ask? Q#19 asked whether the HSO website has been updated in its provision of information to the public. It is significantly out of date, listing classes and treatment groups that have not been offered in over 10 years, in an effort to look much more comprehensive than it is. This is completely unacceptable for a public agency that holds members of our community in custody and is indicative of the lack of transparency and accountability generally. It also indicates a level of disrespect for the members of the community overall, in treating them as though they don’t deserve to have access to correct, updated information. I want to underscore the importance of the fact that 3 individuals who worked under this administration stepped up to run for office to challenge the status quo, at great financial and personal cost to each of us. Although one has dropped out, the remaining 2 challengers are sharing information with the electorate that should deeply concern Hampshire voters: that the current administration is typically absent and inattentive, has not kept up with needs to modernize on multiple levels, has been so unresponsive to staff that employees have left in droves and security levels are now unsafe, that the incumbent treats the budget like his own personal bank account—rewarding his friends with jobs and promotions, and there has been significant financial obfuscation and malfeasance. We cannot afford the status quo this time. We must do better.