Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden says he stands with all other Massachusetts sheriffs against a wholesale release of people jailed in the state as a preventive measure against the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is slated to hear arguments on the subject of prisoner release Tuesday following a lawsuit filed by the Committee for Public Counseling Services (CPCS), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL).
“The 14 Sheriffs feel confident the hearing will go in our favor,” Sheriff Ogden emailed. “The DAs and Chiefs of Police across the Commonwealth have lined up shoulder to shoulder with Sheriffs on this issue. We have spelled out the ramifications of a mass release on this population as well as expanded public health burden, effect on the general public, and victims of these individuals’ crimes. Remember, a large majority of our inmate population suffer from underlying co-occurring drug, alcohol, and mental health factors. Which means the burden to care for these individuals will fall on our local public health providers, at a time when their resources are dramatically overburdened. Quite frankly, we are limited to our ability to monitor individuals released from our custody, (i.e. bracelet program). In my first year the Commonwealth shuttered our community corrections program with the courts for lack of adequate population to staff ratio.”
Ogden went on to write that an adverse decision by the SJC could have a negative impact on the Dukes County Sheriff’s office.
A formula created by the state Executive Office for Administration and Finance and the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means to support general appropriations — not sheriffs’ specialty services — ”only accounts for inmate to staffing ratios, or county’s public population, and not resources needed, or public safety functions required to operate a 24/7 public safety service,” Ogden wrote. “Basically, we are currently overstaffed and over paid, as far as the commonwealth is concerned. Now, if this CPCS lawsuit goes against us, we would be placed in a very precarious position, declining population does not equate to staff ratio requirements, services still need to be provided regardless of whether we have 10 individuals or 100 in our custody. Also, the commonwealth doesn’t recognize our statutory obligation to provide Jail/Lockup and E911 Communication, although it is clearly defined as an obligation of the Commonwealth under Chapter 61, acts of 2009, to fund these functions.”
On the Vineyard, Ogden wrote that a specific assessment procedure is in place to identify prisoners who may qualify for early release.
“Our human service officer classifies our inmate population on a regular basis, with the support of a panel of operations officers to assess their level of application to specific functions, privileges, and housing in the facility, as well as, qualification for early release,” he wrote. “These factors are already in place and implemented in conjunction with the court. But, keep in mind, the ability to release a sentenced or pre-trial individual falls directly on the court’s shoulders. The Sheriffs refuse to negotiate these terms, contending the ultimate decision to release an individual falls [on the] judicial [system]. We can provide guidance as to appropriate individuals for release, but the onus is on the court to decide. That’s why they are not elected to their position, it’s time for the SJC to stand up and make a ruling. Either way, we will follow any lawful order from the court.”
Asked if a release order would be handed down, there might be some assessment of who is released in regards to violent criminals versus non-violent criminals. Ogden wrote that he stood against violent criminal releases in the first place. “Obviously, we would not recommend a violent offender for release,” he wrote There are several factors being considered by the court; age, health, nature of crime, pre-existing underlying health issues, etc.”
Ultimately the sheriff wrote the amount of work and resources needed to monitor such releases on-Island would be too burdensome, requiring “a complete maintenance, monitoring vehicle, and programming to fit each release’s needs; medical resources, MAT programming when required, counseling services, housing in place, etc. It would be difficult for our community to furnish these added services, currently provided to inmates in our facility.”
Between people who are pre-arraignment and could be released on bail, as well as people in protective custody, those awaiting sentencing, and those who’ve been sentenced, those who are held in lockup, the jail, and the house of corrections respectively, amount to 12, Ogden said as of Tuesday. Of the 12, 10 of those people are in the house of corrections, he said.
“We are one of the only counties in the commonwealth who perform all these functions completely,” he said. “We continue to provide lockup to six towns and the court system, because we are the only facility capable of this function on Martha’s Vineyard. By law there is a separation between classifications, in particular, lockup has no contact with the jail and house of corrections. We have fairly close quarters in our 1873 facility, we do a good job of separating these three distinct classifications of detainees. Our protocols in place have greatly decreased the potential for cross contamination of distinct populations.”
Ogden pointed out the Dukes County Jail is COVID-19-free, and the sheriff’s department is trained to prevent infectious diseases from spreading in the facility.
“Bottom line, our inmate population and the public in general are safer with our incarcerated staying in place,” he wrote. “We have no cases of COVID-19 in our facility, we are more sterile than most homes, we practice social distancing to a far greater degree than the general public, we have all the resources in house to sustain this population indefinitely, in a humane and healthy atmosphere. Shame on CPCS for attacking the Sheriffs’ statutory obligation, without founded evidence to the contrary. We are performing our jobs to the highest standards of professionalism, integrity, and respect. We are the professionals in infectious disease mitigation and deterrence. Think about it, whether COVID-19 or not, we are a community within the MV community, and we practice the utmost preservation of custody, care, and control of our community’s population, with the ultimate goal of public safety first and foremost.”
In a release issued Tuesday, Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe joined six other district attorneys in denouncing the prison release effort put before the SJC.
“District attorneys Blodgett, Cruz, Early, Gulluni, Morrissey, O’Keefe, and Quinn understand the petitioners’ concerns regarding the risks presented by COVID-19 in detention facilities in the commonwealth,” the release states. “But, as the chief law enforcement officers in seven districts responsible for the safety of some 3.8 million residents of the commonwealth, and in view of the rights and interests of crime victims, we submit that this crisis is not cause to abandon government’s most basic function of safeguarding its citizens. Instead, the district attorneys prefer that inmates be considered for release on a case-by-case basis in hearings before judges, who make individual decisions considering the totality of the circumstances.”