Editorial: Our incarcerated guests

Editorial: Our incarcerated guests

Every review of the vital services provided the community at the Dukes County Jail and House of Correction revives the community debate over whether and when to replace and, almost certainly, expand the ancient facility. Despite the Edgartown jail’s antiquity and decrepitude, the decision is difficult for Islanders, largely because of the common subtext: Because of the state’s considerable investment in a new Dukes County prison, will serious criminals, convicted of violent crimes elsewhere and sentenced to long terms in state prisons, eventually be housed on Martha’s Vineyard, as the state’s prison population outgrows available space on the mainland?

Times writer Steve Myrick reports this morning that an increase in the number of days inmates spent last year in what we generally call the jail indicates that more arrests and convictions for serious crimes occurred here in 2008 than in 2007. Adjusting for population growth, including the uncertain contribution to that growth by the legal and illegal immigrant population, it seems reasonable to rely upon the Dukes County Sheriff’s Department’s analysis of this change.

Sheriff Michael McCormack reports that from June 30, 2007, to July 1, 2008 (the latest one-year statistical period), there was an average daily population increase of about 10 percent.

The debate about where to build a new jail/house of correction and how large it must be has certainly gotten beyond the question of whether such a step-up is required. It is, but there are other questions, and they suggest themselves in today’s report on the sort of miscreants incarcerated here and what their rehabilitative needs may be.

The Dukes County jail is for short stays for relatively minor offenses. Longer sentences for more serious crimes result in state prison sentences. That’s as it should be. This is not the community, even with a new, larger, modern jail, to be hosting serious (and especially violent) criminals.

The sheriff knows that most of the inmates in his facility are drug or alcohol abusers, minor dealers, or thieves. They are not typically violent, though in some cases the potential for violence may be present.

But Dukes County, insulated though it is geographically, is one with Massachusetts in its courts and prison system. So, inmates are transferred here from state prison, where conditions are mean, sentences longer, and the offenders often crime-hardened and disposed to violence.

The sheriff also sometimes needs to find housing for criminals sentenced in Dukes County for more serious offences and those who are difficult to manage in his small, integrated facility. To be sure that these prisoners of his will find the places they need in prisons off-Island, Sheriff McCormack must regularly accept prisoners transferred from mainland facilities, often because the transferred inmate is in danger from the off-Island prison’s inmate population.

Most Islanders would prefer a one-way deal. We’d like to send the prisoners we don’t want to mainland prisons, but not have off-Island facilities send prisoners to us. When a new prison is built here, with state money (if the state ever has money again), such a deal will not be part of the package. Still, the protocol for the trading of inmates ought to be part of the negotiations with the state in advance of a commitment to a new prison. And, ultimately the arrangement ought to be one that is defined, understood by Islanders, and followed unvaryingly by this sheriff and his successors.

That the pressures on Sheriff McCormack’s department and on the jail/house of correction he runs are large and growing is beyond dispute. It is also unambiguously the case that inmates who ought to serve their sentences here, rather in state prisons, ought to have expanded and more intensive rehabilitative services provided them. Together, these conclusions support, as they have over all the years of the new jail debate, the decision to build a larger, modern, better equipped facility on Martha’s Vineyard. The question that remains unresolved, but must be, has to do with the prisoner trade-off.

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