| G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – Hampden County Sheriff’s Department Assistant Superintendent and sheriff’s candidate Nick Cocchi charged that Springfield City Councilor Tom Ashe’s plan to establish a treatment center at the Hampden County Jail for non-incarcerated addicts “belies a basic lack of understanding of the role of the Sheriff’s Department.”
With the Sept. 8 primary less than 50 days away, the candidates are expressing more specific plans to attract support.
Ashe released a plan on July 7 that stated in part, “The law allows for an individual suffering from alcohol or substance abuse to be involuntarily committed to a treatment facility if certain conditions are met. Unfortunately, there are few licensed inpatient treatment facilities in the state and there are not enough beds available for those committed through Section 35. Given the current state of prison populations and an increase in opioid addiction, jails are forced to house Section 35 individuals in a restrictive prison environment where they receive limited service during their sentence.”
The statement continued, “It is for this reason, Ashe has stated he would re-open one of the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department seventy-seven bed minimum security housing units to serve as an inpatient treatment center for those suffering from addiction. There are housing units at the Ludlow campus that are not being presently utilized and Ashe proposed to repurpose these in this manner will make good use of the taxpayer funded facilities.”
Cocchi said, “The Sheriff’s Department primary role in the battle against addiction is to prepare offenders to reenter the community with needed treatment and stabilization services along with referrals to programs and services in the community.”
Cocchi continued, “When you understand the wide range of services these state programs provide it is evident that a County Sheriff’s department is far better suited to working with them than trying to duplicate them. We need to support their efforts rather than spend taxpayer money. Our own budget does not allow for expansion at our Ludlow facility. It is unfortunate that Tommy Ashe neglected to provide any specifics as to the procurement of the resources necessary to accomplish his plan; a plan that according to expert counselor in the field will just simply not be effective.”
He added, “It is highly unlikely that those seeking voluntary treatment will be willing to go to jail to get it. The treatment programs for those involuntarily committed and those seeking voluntary treatment should be separate from each other.”
People who are in recovery through their time at the jail, as well as addiction counselors who work at the jail joined Cocchi at the press conference. Peter Babineau, an addiction treatment and educational specialist said all the people were there “on their own time.”
He added, “It’s not about politics, its about saving people’s lives.”
Mike Patterson, who is five months sober after his stay at the jail thanked Cocchi and “all of the men and women [at the jail] who care.”
Cocchi asserted that both Ashe and Governor’s Councilor Michael Albano “don’t know what’s happening at the jail.”
Cocchi added Albano’s vision of the Sheriff’s Department is “going into the public health model.”
He added the role of the Sheriff’s department is to “educate and treat incarcerated men and women – that is the necessary way of slowing down the runaway train [of addiction]. We have to support agencies there already doing the job.”
He said the Western Massachusetts Correctional Addiction Center, now located in Holyoke and slated to move to Mill Street in Springfield, has “lost its effectiveness” as 60 of the 100 volunteers that provide assistance are no longer with the program because it no longer is in Springfield.
The location of the center has been part of Albano’s platform. He has promised to move it to the jail in Ludlow if he is elected sheriff.
At a thank you event conducted at Nathan Bill’s Restaurant in Springfield on July 15, Albano formally received the endorsement from the National Correctional Employees Union (NCEU) and signed a “Bill of Rights,” for those workers.
According to the Albano campaign, “The agreement, a binding contractual obligation, is the first time a candidate for public office and a union have agreed to modifications in an existing contract. (The current contract between the Sheriff and NCEU expires on June 30, 2017).”
It would go into effect on Jan. 2, 2017.
The document lists issues such as pay equity, shift differential wage adjustment and staffing ratio that would be addressed.
Albano stated, “This change in working conditions and rights for NCEU members represents basic collective bargaining fairness and should have been instituted years ago. The current working conditions are the primary reason for the low morale of correctional officers and are an affront to working families. They clearly do not represent my labor values or that of the Democratic Party.”
Cocchi said he believes many of the points listed on the document “can’t be brought to fruition.”
He said, “You can’t just change pay scale without going to the state.” He added the Secretary of Administration and Finance must approve a change.
The New England Police Benevolent Association, Inc. (NEPBA) has formally endorsed Ashe for sheriff of Hampden County.
The organization represents correctional officers who work under sheriffs across the Commonwealth including Worcester County (Local 550), Middlesex County (Local 500), and Norfolk County. The organization also represents a variety of local law enforcement organizations, including the city of Worcester Police Union (Local 911).
The McKnight Neighborhood Council and the Ward 4 Democratic will host the next debate between the candidates on July 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the?Rebecca Johnson School Auditorium at? 55 Catherine St.
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