In race for Hampshire sheriff, incumbent defends record against rivals who used to work for him
In western Massachusetts, the Democratic primary for Hampshire County sheriff pits one incumbent against two people with frontline experience in the jail he runs in Northampton.
They both claim they would run it better.
Before he was elected sheriff in 2016, Patrick Cahillane spent time in the Army National Guard, worked as a correctional officer, and held several administrative jobs at the Hampshire County Jail.
At a recent public forum in Northampton, Cahillane used his experience running the jail as a key selling point.
“It's complex work,” he said at the forum, which was hosted by the Amherst and Northampton Leagues of Women Voters and the Daily Hampshire Gazette. “It requires a multidimensional dimensional skill set, which I've developed over the past 40 years."
Another candidate, Yvonne Gittelson, used to be in charge of education programs at the Hampshire County Jail and now oversees correctional programs for the state’s education department.
“Education is the only thing proven to reduce recidivism,” Gittelson said. “It saves lives and money, and it interrupts the school to prison pipeline.”
The third candidate, Caitlin Sepeda, is a registered nurse who worked for 10 years at the Hampshire County Jail — under Cahillane and his predecessor — before moving to corrections in Berkshire County.
“I'm the only candidate for office that continues to do the day-to-day, face-to-face work with the individuals who are incarcerated,” she said in her introduction, “as well as working face to face and shoulder to shoulder with the staff who are doing this work.”
The three candidates all say they support substance abuse and mental health treatment at the jail, though they disagreed on whether there’s enough at the moment.
Cahillane said his was one of the first jails in Massachusetts to set up a medication-assisted program in 2018 to treat opioid addiction within the building. He said people are offered services as soon as they arrive.
“There's always room for improvement in anything that we do, but we do have substance abuse treatment, we do have mental health treatment and we do have ongoing services,” Cahillane said. “We get them the appropriate treatment that they need, in the appropriate time frame.”
Sepeda said she was involved in setting up the opioid treatment program, which she applauds. She was less complimentary about the jail’s mental health services, which are contracted to an outside agency, ServiceNet.
“What does that buy us?” Sepeda said. “That buys us a clinician Monday through Friday and it buys us a provider twice per month. That is not enough to deal with the more than 50%vof the population with a diagnosed significant mental health issue.”
Gittelson said she found mental health services disappointing when she worked at the Hampshire County Jail.
“If you go through the pretrial side of the facility, you will see an awful lot of folks sleeping in through much of the afternoon,” she said. “Not a lot going on, very little in the way of education services, very little in the way of mental health services.”
How the jail has fared during COVID-19 was another point of contention. Sepeda was working at the jail when the pandemic first hit. She said there was no plan for that kind of crisis.
“What else could have been done?” she said. “We could have seen the presence of our sheriff more frequently during the initial outbreaks. We also could have seen a different leadership style where we put the frontline staff first ... and administrative staff second.”
Gittelson said she would have responded more quickly to public health guidance.
“They were telling us weeks before … to start taking precautions that we eventually needed to take,” she said.
Cahillane defended his response. He said he followed CDC and state guidelines and hired an epidemiologist to figure out the best course of action.
“And guess what? It was successful,” he said. “We kept everybody safe during COVID. Some people may have gotten sick, but nobody died on my watch.”
All three candidates said they would not collaborate with federal immigration officials to help deport those who are undocumented.
They also talked about hiring a more diverse staff and a staff able to deal with a smaller but more violent incarcerated population, since less serious offenses are now more likely to lead to probation.
The forum got testy near the end, as Cahillane accused his opponents of running campaigns of misinformation.
“There has not been 100% transparency on behalf of my opponents,” he said, “as to what their history is and what their work history, whether it be at the Hampshire sheriff's office or previous.”
Gittelson tried to break in, saying “Let me stop you right there, Sheriff Cahillane. You’re treading into some difficult —” but the moderator did not allow her to finish.
Meanwhile, Sepeda brought up recent accusations against one of the jail’s administrators for allegedly trying to intimidate supporters of Cahillane’s rivals and steal their campaign signs.
“This is ugly. This is dirty. This is the politics that we hear about,” Sepeda said.
According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, that administrator has since resigned and Cahillane said he was completely unaware of her actions.
There is no Republican candidate for Hampshire County Sheriff, so the winner of the September 6 Democratic primary will be the only name on the ballot in November.