Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins recently invited me to come see what dignified incarceration looks like at the South Bay House of Correction. He wants to turn an empty space there into an addiction treatment center ― and temporary home ― for people camping out nearby in the infamous Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard tent city.
Tompkins’s plan has generated blowback ― critics say it would further criminalize addiction and homelessness at a time when there’s a movement to imprison fewer people. But Tompkins’s approach applies lessons learned in a cellblock that he wants to use as a model.
The unit I visited has about 30 people, age 18 to 25, who are enrolled in a program called PEACE, an acronym for Positive Energy Always Creates Elevation. They’re being taught life skills to help them reintegrate into society after serving their sentences.
The setup is similar to how the Mass. and Cass treatment center would look. Each of the 340-square-foot cells ― which remain unlocked most of the day ― are designed to hold six people. But since the jail is far below capacity, they had just a few occupants apiece when I was there. That compares with the standard cell at South Bay, which is only 70 square feet and can hold three people; Tompkins said he intends to house no more than three people in each of the larger Mass. and Cass cells.
On the day I visited the PEACE unit, no one was confined to a cell, nor was anyone handcuffed. Some people played video games, others watched TV. A few were deep in conversation on landline phones; toilets and sinks are separate from where people sleep. I saw only two uniformed correction officers stationed at the entrance of the dormitory-style unit on the third floor of what is known as Building 8. Neither carried a gun or baton.
“There’s a misconception of what happens inside correctional facilities,” said Rachelle Steinberg, an assistant superintendent with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office who led me on the tour.
That’s the most controversial part of Tompkins’s solution to Mass. and Cass, which would involve police picking up people with outstanding warrants. But it’s also pragmatic. Under an executive order signed by Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey on Tuesday, the tent encampments will be dismantled. Tompkins at least offers the troubled people squatting there a place to go where they can receive help instead of scorn.
Building 8 also houses a program called OASIS — an acronym for Opioid and Addiction Services unit Inside South Bay — which provides intensive addiction treatment for about 30 detainees awaiting trial. That layout, too, is similar to the PEACE unit.
But those held at the house of correction don’t have to be in one of the special units to receive treatment. Of the 1,100 occupants, close to two-thirds of the men and three-quarters of the women have both mental health and substance use disorders.
The Mass. and Cass unit Tompkins envisions would encompass several floors in a four-story building that sits on the edge of the jail campus. This new center, which could hold up to 100 people for 90 days, would have its own entrance, and be separate from where other prisoners live. Those ordered into treatment wouldn’t wear prison garb, and corrections staff wouldn’t wear traditional uniforms.
Tompkins says his office has the money to get the program launched, but is seeking money from the state to help keep it going. Most important, he would need the courts to order people into treatment. City and other local officials have told me they are discussing setting up a temporary court at the South Bay correctional complex because it will be difficult to transport people from Mass. and Cass since many are medically compromised.
Several hundred people are thought to be staying in at least 150 tents in the Mass. and Cass area. Under Janey’s plan, people told to leave will be given advance notice and offered alternative housing. Those who refuse to go could be charged with disorderly conduct or put in jail involuntarily if they are deemed dangerous to themselves or others because of addiction or a mental illness.
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who has been working with the city and state on resolving the humanitarian crisis at Mass. and Cass, has visited the house of correction ― including the PEACE unit ― on numerous occasions.
“Sheriff Tompkins, in particular, has really tried as much as he can to get people well, to get people opportunities, and to make people better,” she said.
Rollins’s office has focused on prosecuting violent criminals and other dangerous predators who have been living in the tents and elsewhere. She, like Janey, considers incarcerating people dealing with addiction and homelessness a last resort. But she didn’t rule it out.
Everyone — including Tompkins ― would prefer to house Mass. and Cass residents some place besides a jail, said Rollins. But the clock is ticking and action is needed now. “What we aren’t going to do is sit for hours in a room not having any solutions. ... Nothing should be off the table,” she said. “Nothing.”
Still, Tompkins’s proposal has troubled public health professionals, including two doctors I spoke with who have studied how jail-based addiction programs can be effective. They worry about forcing people into treatment as a way to clear the streets.
“If you wanted to design an optimal treatment system, it would not be in a correctional facility,” said one of them, Dr. Jody Rich, a Brown University professor of medicine and epidemiology who is director for the Center for Health & Justice Transformation.
I did find one doctor who likes Tompkins’s thinking: State Representative Jon Santiago, a Boston Democrat who works as an emergency room doctor at Boston Medical Center, sometimes treating patients from the Mass. and Cass area. He also lives in the South End and knows firsthand what the opioid epidemic and homelessness is doing to the neighborhood.
Santiago, who advised the Janey administration on its new Mass. and Cass strategy, told me he has visited Tompkins’s OASIS unit and said the latest proposal is a “more robust” version of what the sheriff already does.
“This one is better because it is going to be done in conjunction with important public health players who know what they’re doing,” added Santiago.
He said there are checks and balances built into Tompkins’s plan. The sheriff would only provide the space; it would be up to judges to decide whether to send people into involuntary treatment.
“I’ve seen people twice in one day who have overdosed,” said Santiago. “Folks are declining beds. That just gives you an insight into just how debilitating these issues are.”
The sheriff’s idea is one of many that will be needed to address the calamity at Mass. and Cass, which has created a public health and safety crisis that ranges from infectious outbreaks to violent assaults to human trafficking. Tompkins has spent the summer watching the encampment grow and conditions deteriorate. He wonders how giving people food, shelter, and health care could be considered less humane than letting them live in squalor, and soon, under the frigid conditions of a New England winter.
Yes, we shouldn’t criminalize homelessness and addiction, but we also shouldn’t demonize law enforcement. Complex problems require complex solutions. And the situation at Mass. and Cass is about as complex as they get.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.