Candidates state cases for Hampshire County sheriff

Aug. 8, 2022 |  Ryan Feyre | thereminder.com
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HAMPSHIRE COUNTY – Candidates for the Hampshire County Sheriff race faced off during the first forum ahead of the State Primary Election on Sept. 6.

The Easthampton Democratic City Committee hosted the candidate forum on Aug. 4 at the Easthampton City Hall second floor conference room. Jackie Brousseau-Pereira, the chair of the committee, served as the moderator.

Current Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane – elected in 2016 – is running for a second six-year term against two primary challengers who have both worked at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction – Caitlin Sepeda of South Hadley, a registered nurse who has worked in two Western Massachusetts correctional facilities, and Yvonne Gittelson of Goshen, the corrections program specialist for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

One independent candidate, Pittsfield native John Vanasse, dropped out of the race in June. There are no Republican candidates in this race.

The Democratic primary on Sept. 6 will determine the only candidate on the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election, barring a write-in challenge.

In preparation for the primary, the prospective candidates will participate in a series of forums across the month of August. For the Aug. 4 event, the candidates were asked to give opening statements, answer submitted community questions and then issue closing statements. Below are some of the issues discussed during the forum, as well as each candidate’s thoughts on each topic. People can visit the E-Media YouTube page to watch the full two-hour forum.

Readers may also check Reminder Publishing’s website for earlier coverage of each individual candidate and what their goals are if elected sheriff.

Role of the sheriff

When it comes to defining the role of the Hampshire County Sheriff, Gittelson believes there needs to be more transparency on all fronts. “When I consider the stakeholders, I do consider those in custody, I consider the staff that works in custody, but first and foremost, I consider the community as general stakeholders,” said Gittelson. “I think there hasn’t been enough communication, enough transparency, and enough accountability between the sheriff’s office in Hampshire County and the communities their serve.”

As a result, Gittelson wants to publish all of the budgets, including inmate benefits and outside sources of income like grant funding - the latter of which Gittelson has had experience working with during her time at the Hampshire County jail.

“When I think of the role of sheriff, I think of the role of sheriff as a caretaker,” said Gittelson. “It’s the primary governmental person who is responsible.”

Sepeda, meanwhile, said the role of the sheriff is to be an arm for public safety for all of its stakeholders, including staff, people in custody and the community at large. “Our primary goal as sheriff in a correctional setting is to make better the people who are incarcerated with us … as they enter back into their communities,” said Sepeda.

As someone who has served as a correctional nurse for over a decade, Sepeda said that addressing the mental health and substance abuse issues that have been exacerbated over the past five to six years is important. “That’s where the focus needs to be,” said Sepeda. “You will be unable to reach people for any kind of extra help … until you get them to a place in their substance abuse recovery where they are physically able to accept that help and treatment.”

Although the jail was recognized as an opioid treatment program (OTP) last year, Sepeda believes that these services could be expanded.

“That first and primary concern needs to be addressing our substance abuse issues,” said Sepeda. “That happened really well when our facility became an OTP; that can be expanded through streamlining our program.”

Beyond just staff and justice-involved individuals, Cahillane said that the stakeholders are anyone who encounters the system in some capacity. “The system itself is designed to have outside people involved in day-to-day functioning of corrections in Massachusetts,” said Cahillane, who has worked in the Hampshire County jail in various positions for 35 years. “People come in contact with this system sometimes because they know somebody in the community that is an individual who is incarcerated. And in many of those cases, in those situations, we help that citizen understand what the role of corrections is.

“The idea behind the department is that each division will give that kind of service to the general public,” Cahillane continued. “That’s what our responsibility is.”

Cahillane described the operations at the jail as multi-dimensional, with multiple stakeholders working together to find jobs for justice-involved individuals when they re-enter the world. “The other group is the wraparound services outside in the community that we provide and connect with, so that individual inmate, when they are leaving us or close to leaving us, can in fact get services in the community through all of those different groups we work with,” said Cahillane.

Areas of improvement for jail

All the candidates discussed, in some capacity, how a lack of staffing is a major problem within the jail. “There aren’t enough qualified candidates for the job openings we have,” said Sepeda. “Those that we do get in aren’t necessarily seasoned in any kind of way.”

As a result, Sepeda believes that current staff is doing more with less, which means employees are being overworked as their responsibilities continue to be expanded.

Beyond that, Sepeda also noted the “antiquated” nature of the technology in the jail as a major problem, as many employees still use typewriters for record-keeping. “There’s no reason for that; they sit next to computers in every single instance” said Sepeda. “It’s a matter of taking the initiative and starting to use that technology. What we can make up for a little bit in our lack of staffing, is the use of technology where start working smarter.”

Cahillane argued that staffing is an issue in many institutions across the country face, not just the jail. “That is only one piece of the puzzle,” said Cahillane. “We have to look at how we evolve corrections.”

He said that the jail received over 300 applications for jobs over the past year, with 15 people recruited from those applications. He added that sheriffs across the state worked with legislative branch to change how they interpret staffing, especially as some facilities continue to evolve.

“Some facilities have changed since they were first designed,” said Cahillane. “Ours included. We’ve re-worked the inside of the structure so that two of the housing units are better formatted to getting better control by the staff.”

Cahillane also added that a lot was spent on information technology in the last budget for educational purposes and to better prepare staff.

Gittelson also argued that staffing is particularly a problem at the jail, with departments like the security being overworked. “When someone can’t put in for getting their child’s birthday off … and they have no choice except to call out sick, that’s a quick way to really bring the morale of the facility down,” said Gittelson.

The lack of general leadership and “mission” continues to be a problem at the jail, as well, according to Gittelson, which means the morale of the workplace decreases exponentially.

“There are ways to award employees that don’t come down to money,” said Gittelson. “People want to be heard; people want to be seen; people want to be spoken too and communicated with.”

To fix the staffing issues, Gittelson believes the jail must think differently and recruit differently. “We need to think about who our officers can be,” she said. “And that’s really where the key staffing shortage is.”

Mental health and substance abuse

“Yes, there are mental health issues in our facility; there are mental health issues in society,” said Cahillane. “I have been at [the jail] for a long time and have dealt with mental health issues.”
Cahillane added that he has seven licensed staff and a psychiatrist hired part time to work with the newer and younger staff, as well as the security staff, on mental health issues-training program Cahillane hopes to continue if reelected. “I will guarantee you, if you were looking for services today in this community for mental illness, you would be waiting three to six months,” said Cahillane. “We have a connection because we contract services with ServiceNet, and ServiceNet is in our community.

“I do care about people,” Cahillane continued. “That’s why I entered this profession to begin with.”

Gittelson believes that if substance and abuse and mental health problems are happening concurrently, then the jail must address them at the same time. “You need counseling, you need actual therapy,” said Gittelson. “Specifically, talk therapy in some form or another.”

With a plethora of mental health clinicians working in Hampshire County, Gittelson said it would be great to hire some of these professionals at the jail. The problem, according to Gittelson, is people do not want to work at the jail.

“One of the first things we need to do is we need to make the Hampshire County Jail a place where people want to work,” said Gittelson. “We also need to address the mental health issues of the staff themselves, and nobody’s talking about that.”

Sepeda, on the other hand, would like to see the jail have its own mental health department, instead of contracting out to ServiceNet.

“We need to get licensed clinicians in, and we need to get more of them so there’s more ability for the individuals in our care to be assessed, to be diagnosed, and then to be treated,” said Sepeda. To find more of these clinicians, Sepeda argued that the jail could take advantage of the many colleges in our area by recruiting recent graduates and keeping in contact with individuals who have served internships. And once a mental health department is sustained, the expansion of treatment options is the next step, according to Sepeda.

“You have more than 50 percent of the facility with a diagnosed significant mental health disorder,” said Sepeda. “We need more staff, greater hours, expanded availability to the facility.”

Demographics

According to Cahillane, the majority of people who are arrested in Hampshire County come from outside the county and tend to be from the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community. Twenty percent of justice-involved individuals in the jail are of African heritage, and according to Cahillane, the Hispanic percentage can be skewed because many are classified as white when they enter the jail’s custody. The other half of the population meanwhile is white, and the staff is overwhelmingly white.

“You can’t confuse that with what the community looks like here,” said Cahillane. “Because we don’t look like the population that is in our custody. We also take in inmates from the state Department of Corrections, and we also take inmates in from other counties, and that can skew the minority populations, as well.”

Cahillane added that the jail tries to balance the staff as best they can to represent the population inside the jail by recruiting the best and most qualified staff. He added that most of the treatment-based staff are women, and Cahillane argued that these women work better with male justice-involved individuals.

While the staff represents the demographic of the county, Sepeda said that the Hampshire County demographic does not accurately represent the population the jail serves.

“Ideally, what the demographics would look for me, is a staff that more closely represents that demographic or at least has some sort of background with that demographic,” said Sepeda. “We have very few staff who actually have a lived experience with corrections, with substance abuse, with mental health, with any of that.”

According to Sepeda, community outreach is key to finding a balance with the demographics. “Having folks that understand what the folks at a correctional facility are going through works as that same de-escalation model,” she added. “I think what we need to have more in corrections is a younger group of people working.”

“The demographics of the staff are overwhelmingly white; the demographics of those in custody are still predominantly white,” said Gittelson. “However, the non-white populations are disproportionately represented in the persons in custody.”

Gittelson added that there needs to be more women in corrections, particularly someone who is nurturing yet no nonsense. “We need women in these roles because…it does de-escalate and bring down the level of tension often.”

Additionally, Gittelson believes there needs to be more training with staff involving anti-racism, equity and inclusion. “The fact that we haven’t addressed that in corrections … is a glaring problem,” she said. “Specifically in Hampshire County.”

Readers can visit the YouTube recording of the forum to learn more about other issues discussed between the candidates: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3diC71C270.