Jailed pedophile, prince draw media attention to Island
Normally, Martha's Vineyard's natural beauty and renowned seasonal visitors generate publicity for the Island. But two high-profile inmates, including a member of Saudi Arabia's extended royal family and an off-Island priest convicted of child pornography, have put the Dukes County Jail and House of Correction in the media spotlight in the past few months.
Recent press reports and even some public officials have described the Dukes County Jail and House of Correction as a country club, an assessment that Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack strongly disputes. A special report on Fox News 25 on Monday was promoted for days by an invitation to "go inside the local jail that is being called a country club for convicts."
The attention began in November, when Bader al-Saud, a member of Saudi Arabia's extended royal family, pled guilty to motor vehicle homicide while operating under the influence of alcohol and driving without a license in connection with a fatal accident in Boston in 2002 and was sentenced to jail. Mr. al-Saud, 23, asked to serve his one-year sentence on Martha's Vineyard.
Two weeks later, Stephen Fernandes, a Catholic priest from New Bedford who pled guilty to charges of possession and distribution of child pornography and posing a child in a state of nudity, was allowed to serve his eight-month sentence on the Vineyard.
The two high-profile incarcerations generated off-Island press reports that likened the Island house of correction to a shabby bed and breakfast. The Boston Herald published a news story in November entitled, "Kiddie porn priest joins prince at cushy Island jail."
Last month, the New Bedford Standard Times reported that Mr. Fernandes had not received any sex offender treatment, but was taking computer classes. In a sharp reaction, Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh described the Dukes County house of correction as "the country club of houses of correction."
The Fox News was in many ways a rehash of familiar sound bites interspersed with Sheriff McCormack's edited comments. Fox reported that prisoners had enjoyed a Super Bowl party complete with pizza delivered to the jail and noted that two prisoners had escaped over the past four years.
On Tuesday, Mr. McCormack criticized the report. "It is very misleading to the public and it does a disservice to the men and women who work for me here," he said. "This is not a country club; it is an antiquated jail that needs to be replaced."
Mr. McCormack said the size and location of the facility prevented him from providing the types of security measures found in other facilities, such as a chain link fence. "We certainly do the best job possible with the facility that we have," he said.
Sheriff McCormack said people consider the Vineyard to be a recreational area and it is not surprising that the House of Correction would have the same aura attached, making it an easy target. He said the small size of the facility allows him the flexibility to accept other prisoners because it is a manageable situation and he can keep people safe. But he discounted the notion that there is anything cushy about serving time in jail.
"People just take freedom for granted and you do not realize that until it is taken away from you," he said.
Mr. McCormack discussed what he described as the misconceptions surrounding incarceration on Martha's Vineyard.
"There are three times a year when I give a special meal, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Super Bowl Sunday, and it has been traditional," he said. "I allow the inmates to buy their own pizza."
In previous comments last week, Sheriff McCormack addressed the criticism he received for allowing Mr. Fernandes to use a computer as part of a basic computer skills class. The computer was not hooked up to the Internet and Mr. Fernandes was supervised, he said.
There are currently 28 people serving time in the house of correction, approximately five of whom are from off-Island. Mr. McCormack said keeping local people housed in a local facility, as opposed to sending them to the larger Barnstable House of Correction, allows for more frequent family contact during incarceration and helps reintegrate people back into the community.
Skills and training were themes repeated frequently by the Sheriff and other correctional employees. "We feel that punishment takes pace at the courthouse, that the judge metes out the punishment," said Mr. McCormack. "We feel that it is our job, and our responsibility to then accept that individual who is put into our custody and equip them with as many skills as possible before they get returned into the community."
Sheriff McCormack said that the average inmate at the jail is serving a six- to eight-month sentence. The maximum sentence is two and a half years per charge. By law sentences beyond two and half years must be served at a state prison.
Inmates at the Dukes County House of Correction have access to a wide variety of programs, including high school equivalency classes, alcohol and drug abuse programs, parenting groups, anger management classes, job skills training, bible study groups, and even college level courses through Cape Cod Community College.
Inmates are not required to participate in any programs, but Sheriff McCormack said that they are encouraged to get involved. "We don't force anything on anybody, and we will always have inmates that will sit there like a bump on the log until their sentence is up, but we try to encourage participation," he said.
Encouragement often comes in the form of incentives and rewards such as reduced sentences, lower-security cells with more privileges, and work release.
Sheriff McCormack stressed that positive reinforcement has a much higher success rate than punishment and negative reinforcement. "The carrot does work better than the stick," he said.
The various programs also extended beyond the walls of the house correction. Many of the programs are offered through the Dukes County Community Corrections Center, located at the airport. According to the Dukes County web site, community corrections is an "intermediate sanctions programs which offers a continuum of services for probation, parole, and Sheriff's inmates."
The center provides educational programs, life skills and vocational instruction, and substance abuse treatment.
Carolyn Kildegaard, community corrections treatment manager, stressed the importance of treatment and education for inmates and other people in the correctional system. "The fact is that treatment does work," she said, "and we are very fortunate to have a sheriff that is treatment-oriented, because within the prison system, that is not always the norm."
Monte Pearce, a substance abuse counselor, repeated the praise, and said that the proactive approach toward education and rehabilitation is an important element in reducing the number of repeat offenders. "The majority of inmates here are here because of drug-related issues, alcohol being the most significant drug," he said. "One of the major focuses of these programs is relapse prevention. By helping the inmates pay attention to their behavior they can learn to see their addictive and criminal patterns of thinking. It is a very important element of rehabilitation."
The security level spectrum
When an inmate first arrives at the house of correction he is secluded to his cell for 72 hours. Sheriff McCormack said that the time allows correctional officers to ensure that the inmate is not on any drugs or alcohol, does not pose a threat to other inmates, and does not have any other issues that could cause problems.
The inmate's clothing is taken away and he is issued a copy of the inmate handbook and a bible. While correction officers observe the inmate, employees also gather information including his criminal background, work experience, and his family and social history. If the inmate has other pending issues such as child support payments, or business issues, correctional employees also help sort those matters out.
After the initial 72 hours, the inmate usually joins the rest of the inmate population in medium security, where inmates are housed in a 10-person dormitory, similar to an army barracks.
The medium-security dorm includes a washing machine and dryer. A common room, similar to a college dormitory common room is adjacent to the sleeping quarters. The room includes a large bookcase filled with various books and reading material. A small television provides cable TV, including HBO.
Sheriff McCormack said that the inmates pay for the cable television through a fund that generates money through the use of the payphones in the jail. Whenever an inmate makes a phone call the specialized phone deposits the fee into the account.
Within the first 30 days at the house of correction the inmate is given a classification hearing to determine where he will serve the rest of his time. If he has a short sentence he may be eligible for minimum security right away.
If the panel of five correctional staff members recommends minimum security, they send a referral to the community correction center. Ms. Kildegaard then conducts an assessment to determine whether the inmate is ready to attend life-skills training and other programs at the center three afternoons a week.
Minimum-security cells are two-man rooms that include a television and other amenities.
After a time in minimum security, if the inmate has not already served his sentence or is eligible for parole, he will have another classification hearing to determine if he is ready for work release. If approved for work release the inmate moves to the pre-release units, which are larger, more comfortable single-person cells. The pre-release units, which are separate from the rest of the general population area includes a kitchen and other amenities designed for more independent living.
Some inmates are not eligible for work release due to the crimes they committed. Sex-related crimes typically have minimum mandatory sentences that do not allow the inmate out of the facility.
The house of correction also has maximum-security cells. Sheriff McCormack said that the cells are used for inmates that pose some sort of risk, or for inmates that have had some disciplinary action taken against them.
An average day
A day in the house of correction begins at 6 am. Medium-security and lower-security inmates leave their cells and eat breakfast by about 7 am. After breakfast inmates return to their cells, make their beds and get ready for the day.
The agenda for the day depends largely on the individual. Some inmates will go out on a roadwork crew, or will stuff envelopes, or conduct some other community service.
A number of education programs are available during the day as well.
There is a one-hour exercise period once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Inmates can go out in the yard and play basketball or other games during that time. A third exercise period is added in the summer.
In the afternoon, inmates continue work or service, or can participate in various programs and classes. Inmates that participate in programs at the community correction center are taken to the airport during the afternoon. Some inmates have assigned jobs around the facility that they do during the day.
Visiting hours are also held in the afternoon. Sheriff McCormack said the he encourages inmates to visit with friends and family as often as possible. "Having that connection to the outside world is important," he said.
Dinner is prepared in the evening, when inmates perform any chores that they have. There are also more visiting hours in the evening. There are no conjugal visits at the house of correction. Sheriff McCormack said that facility is simply too small to accommodate conjugal visits. Visits are currently held in a small room under the supervision of a correctional officer. Inmates that are not allowed physical contact with visitors sit outside the room behind a Plexiglas window and communicate through a telephone receiver.
There are also some programs and group activities during the evening. The day ends with lights-out at 11 pm.