Gittelson’s Hampshire County sheriff campaign focuses on education

April 26, 2022 | Ryan Feyre | the reminder
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HAMPSHIRE COUNTY – Goshen resident Yvonne Gittelson recently announced that she would be running as a Democratic candidate for the Hampshire County sheriff position with hopes of improving the culture at the Hampshire County Jail & House of Corrections through education and collaboration.

According to Gittelson, who is currently the corrections program specialist for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), educational programs are one of the key components of reducing recidivism among justice-involved individuals.

“We know that education at any level while someone is incarcerated reduces recidivism by 43 percent,” Gittelson told Reminder Publishing, citing a RAND Corporation study from 2013. “It’s the only thing that has been statistically proven to reduce recidivism.”

According to that same study, every $1 spent on education saves $4 to $5 down the road in prevented future incarceration rates. With these statistics in mind, Gittelson hopes to bring the importance of education into focus as the next Hampshire County sheriff. “My pitch is, education saves lives, and it saves money,” she said, adding that better education for the staff at the jail is also a focus of hers. “I have this vision where not just the teachers and education staff will be working with justice-involved individuals, but the security staff will be teaching justice-involved individuals.”

Gittelson will be running against current Sheriff Patrick Cahillane, corrections nurse Caitlin Sepeda of South Hadley, and Florence’s John Vanasse, an administrative lieutenant with the Springfield College Police Department. Vanasse will be running as an independent in the Nov. 8 general election, while all other declared candidates are Democrats running in the Sept. 6 primary election.

As someone who worked in the Hampshire County Jail as a corrections education program coordinator from 2017 to 2021, Gittelson said she wants to create a “system-wide” change within the jail that extends beyond education. During her time at the jail, Gittelson’s duties included staff supervision and evaluation, grant writing, ensurer of program compliance with state and federal regulations, developer of new courses and programming, as well as liaison to MassHire/Franklin-Hampshire Workforce Development Board, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst College, Greenfield Community College and Massachusetts Education Directors’ Council.

Gittelson said that the jail is “not a well-run facility” and the general morale among non-security and security personnel is low. “There are a lot of talented individuals who are not allowed to fully flourish and do, for the facility and justice-involved individuals, what they can do,” said Gittelson. “I’ve seen good employees become bad employees, or I’ve seen good employees leave and take their talent and bring it somewhere else.”

Part of Gittelson’s push for better emphasis on education includes allowing people who come through to receive the equivalent of a high school diploma, as well as an opportunity to go to college. “We have to do a lot of work to convince folks that they can earn a high school equivalency while they’re inside,” said Gittelson. “They can succeed … they can even do college, and they can really make some different choices. It’s a profoundly humbling, powerful, and hopeful experience.”

Gittelson, who was also a longtime K-12 instructor for Berkley High School in California and Amherst Regional High school in Amherst, told Reminder Publishing that she was one of the few people who worked at the jail that brought in money by writing grant proposals.

Much like the other candidates, Gittelson is also focusing on bringing more visibility to the sheriff’s position by educating people on what the Hampshire County sheriff does. There are currently 160 employees and 125 justice-involved individuals at the Hampshire County Jail, which she claims is “concerning” and unsustainable. The current split of justice-involved people at the jail includes 70 percent pre-trial detainees and 30 percent sentenced individuals serving their time. Pre-trial detainees typically stay longer than sentenced individuals, according to Gittelson.

As someone who works for DESE, Gittelson has been able to acquire knowledge on the ins and outs of how funding is allocated across the state. According to Gittelson, K-12 funding per student in Massachusetts public schools is approximately $17,700 a year. Right now, the cost to keep someone incarcerated in the Hampshire County Jail is approximately $120,000 a year.

“The educator in me says, ‘let’s spend $35,000 on every kid in Massachusetts, and hopefully we’ll have very few people in custody requiring us to spend $120,000,’” said Gittelson. “But this is the reality. There are always going to be justice-involved individuals.”

Gittelson said that if the jail budget was available to the public, then more people would be aware of this monetary discrepancy between education and incarceration, and therefore voters would be able to make an informed decision on who they would want for sheriff. “If the average taxpayer or voter knew, then we could have some different conversations,” said Gittelson. “I think people have a right to know why is it we have no idea what any of these expenditures are.”

If she were to become sheriff, Gittelson would also want to address mental health as an important facet of education. “We need much more with regard to mental health services,” she said. “It’s the one-two punch: education and mental health services.”