by Lois Ahrens
Published: 8/18/2019 by the Daily Hampshire Gazette
Michael Ashe, the longtime former sheriff of Hampden County, was an excellent salesman. He sold legislators on the idea that he could see into the future, and the future meant more incarceration.
Legislators believed him and taxpayers footed the bill for a jail in Ludlow big enough to cage 1,800 men. His successor, Sheriff Nick Cocchi, has a problem. Ashe’s prediction has not come true.
As of July 1, the Ludlow jail is incarcerating 421 pretrial men and 273 sentenced men, according to information provided by an attorney for the jail in response to a public records request. Sixty-eight men are jailed under Section 35, which allows the state to jail men who are civilly committed for “treatment” for substance abuse disorder. That is a total of 762 men; way under the number Cocchi needs to justify keeping all of his big jail open.
If bail reform happened and real alternatives to incarceration were implemented, what would Cocchi do? One alternative is jailing people under Section 35. Another option Cocchi is exploring, according to a WBUR report, is a lucrative agreement — at least $91 a day per person — with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to lock up undocumented immigrants.
In 2017, it cost taxpayers $77,729,229 a year to run Hampden County jails, according to budget documents for the jail. The majority of women and men incarcerated there are being held “pretrial,” that is they are mostly too poor to make bail. They have been convicted of nothing. It costs $100,000-plus annually per person to jail someone there. If $77 million is not enough, Cocchi has just persuaded legislators to give him $1 million more to support “treatment” at the jail.
Cocchi maintains that he is locking up men with substance use disorder because he is the only one who is compassionate enough to do it.
No matter that this flies in the face of what health and mental health practitioners believe — that people with substance use disorder are not criminals and that stigmatizing and criminalizing people runs counter to best practices.
No matter that on July 1, the majority of state commissioners who studied Section 35 for a year voted to recommend that the state be prohibited from sending people to jails and prisons for addiction treatment.
One thing is true, Cocchi has a lot of empty cells and a lot of correctional staff, and has hired some treatment providers. He is able to do this because we have invested billions of our tax dollars in building and funding jails.
And, as long as millions are poured into jails, they will not go to community-based, community-run treatment on demand. Think about what kinds of quality services and programs could be purchased for $100,000 per person. If these same choices are repeated, jail for people with substance use disorder will be the default. And if Cocchi has his way, jailing people under Section 35 will not only expand in his jail, it will open the doors around the state to other sheriffs who also have empty cells.
Massachusetts is an outlier. We are the only state that civilly commits people to jail only because they are living with substance use disorder. Now is the time to end it. Let’s invest in treatment not jails.
Lois Ahrens is the founding director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, a national organization based in Northampton. For more information, find The Real Cost of Prisons Project on Facebook and at www.realcostofprisons.org.