fb-pixel Skip to main content

Bob Garvey just might be the best sheriff in the nation

On the rounds with the head of the Hampshire County jail as he prepares to turn in his badge.

Sheriff Bob Garvey before a mural painted by inmates at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

ON A HOT WEDNESDAY IN JULY, Bob Garvey is doing what business experts call "management by walking around," but what he calls "let's go see all the things I can complain about." A tall, joking 79-year-old in a golf shirt, he strolls down hallways of painted cinder block and buffed linoleum into a white-walled room where four men slouch around a table with a female teacher.

"Don't get up," Garvey says with a chuckle. "Stay relaxed." They laugh.

After a bit more banter, Garvey surprises them with a question: "OK, at what temperature are centigrade and Fahrenheit the same?"

Nobody knows, so he writes two formulas on a whiteboard, talks a little algebra, and says to the now-puzzled men, "I will be back."


Garvey, who will retire in January, may seem like a beloved principal — if your principal shook hands, massaged shoulders, cracked wise, and occasionally crooned an old Irish ballad. Yet the rooms here contain watchful guards, and the fences outside are topped with razor wire. This isn't a high school — it's the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, where Garvey has been the superintendent and sheriff for nearly 32 years.

In some correctional facilities, inmates might see their warden a couple of times each year, and then only accompanied by guards. Here on a hill 2 miles outside the center of Northampton, Garvey walks the corridors through minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security areas without escorts. The correctional officers don't carry weapons. Female caseworkers and therapists move in and out of common spaces filled with about 250 men — some convicted of violent crimes — fully at ease. Officers and inmates chat and eat lunch together. Inmates rarely try to escape but regularly try to enter, writing Garvey a dozen letters a week asking for transfers from other jails and prisons.


"People come here as punishment," Garvey says. "Not for punishment." It's an attitude that, over the years, has flown in the face of national movements to either permanently warehouse offenders (Three Strikes) or make jails so unpleasant, the theory goes, that nobody would ever want to return. Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, has housed his prisoners in tents that reached 135 degrees, cut their meals to two per day, and reinstituted chain gangs.

Garvey and others argue that traumatizing inmates just makes them angrier and more dangerous to their community when they get out. "They used to think that punishment was cleansing," Andrea Cabral, former Massachusetts secretary of public safety, said in 2014. "We now know that's not how humans actually work."

"We're trying to correct behavioral shortcomings, and to do that, first we have to provide an environment for change," Garvey says. "Many of these people have been victims themselves, of neglect and abuse. If I had their experiences, I might be on the other side of the bars.

"Most of these guys come in angry," he continues, "and if they're angry, addicted, or even hungry, you can't treat them. To get their attention, you have to get the drugs out of their system, feed them, show them respect, and hope they'll deliver the same back. And, surprisingly, when they get over the shock of being treated well — at first they think we're toying with them — they usually do."

Garvey is aware that some in the local law-enforcement community think he's too soft on the inmates and call the jail "Camp Hamp." He doesn't agree. "The biggest penalty of all," he says, "is losing your freedom. And we don't pamper them — we hold them accountable." Melinda Cady, head of the jail's treatment programs, says: "Lying on a cot watching Jerry Springer is easy. Admitting in a group session that you've got problems and are trying to fix them — that's hard."


Garvey pokes his head in the doorway of the computer room and says to the men tapping at desktops: "Do you think computers will stick around? I think they're just a passing fad."

They laugh, and he moves on.

In one of the common rooms, inmates sit at tables playing cards. Garvey wraps his arm around a young correctional officer in a tan uniform. "This man," he says, "is probably the greatest correctional officer in the Commonwealth, and possibly the world." The officer knows that Garvey is kidding but beams nonetheless.

"We're also trying to create an atmosphere here," Garvey says later, "where the employees feel safe and positive about what they're doing for the client population."

When Garvey began as acting sheriff in 1984, he says the correctional officers voted to change their uniforms from green ("They looked like bus drivers") to blue. He wanted to support them and the democratic process, but he said no. "Blue is the color of the police," he says. "A lot of the people who come in here do not have good associations with the police. And our corrections officers perform a completely different role."


"One of the most important things we do is screen the people who want to work here," Garvey says. "We want people who aren't overly aggressive and who really think. All our officers are heavily trained. They know how to de-escalate. We want both sides to respect each other."

BOB GARVEY WAS BORN IN 1937 and raised in Amherst, the son of a homemaker and a mailman. For 22 years, he taught math and science at South Hadley High School. He also served on the former Hampshire County Commission, where he was involved in building the current jail. When the sheriff died unexpectedly in 1984, Garvey was asked by Governor Michael Dukakis to consider a career change and decided this was a rare opportunity to do things he felt were important. He has since been elected to the post five consecutive times.

Garvey's knowledge of corrections is largely self-taught, which his supporters see as a good thing, allowing him to approach problems in a different way. For the past 20 years, he has also been an adjunct professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and he doesn't see the two careers as all that different. "There's probably no better training for this job than being a teacher," Garvey says. "I learned a long time ago, it's a lot easier to get along with your students than to fight them."


When he was a high school teacher, Garvey jokes, "my students didn't learn much, but they laughed a lot." At the jail, inmates can learn a great deal if they choose to. Garvey's staff, supplemented by outside professionals and volunteers, teaches life skills — budgeting, parenting, how to get along with co-workers, conflict resolution, decision making, goal setting, forgiveness. The men can experience a measure of tranquillity, perhaps a rarity in their lives, via walking meditation in an inmate-built outdoor labyrinth. Some have come into the correctional facility reading at a third-grade level, earned a GED, and completed a fully credited Amherst College class conducted at the jail. Inmates who take the courses and follow the program are allowed increasing liberties. Those who qualify can live in minimum security, then at a halfway house down the street.

The common rooms are also used for therapy sessions — the jail has a shortage of space — so on the walls are framed posters the therapists refer to, listing common thinking errors: "Making excuses. Self-serving acts of kindness. A sense of being above the law." This is part of a behavioral psychology program called Truthought that helps inmates recognize and change the flawed decision-making process that probably put them there in the first place.

The program is based on research that shows we all have an "explanatory style," or way of interpreting the events of the world, that can make us angry, depressed, or pessimistic. Research also shows that when we change this explanatory style, we can improve our lives in many ways, from lowered depression to better health.

"The mind is not our master," says Margie Westwell, who provided counseling services at the jail through ServiceNet, an outside contractor. "It's actually the only thing on this planet we can control. You can't change other people, but you can change how you react to them. How? By changing the way you view events."

Prisoners walk the inmate-built labyrinth to meditate.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Garvey heads into the cafeteria, where he greets Assistant Superintendent Patrick Cahillane, who is running for election to take over for him. "Things are good today," Garvey says. "I don't have much to complain about."

Garvey and his staff regularly have meals in the cafeteria with the inmates, sitting at the same rows of shiny stainless steel tables and eating the same food as the inmates, many of whom will leave the jail with food-services certificates. Today they're serving ground beef and cheese roll-ups, three-bean salad, fries, and spice cake.

Garvey sees eating together as a way to show that but for different circumstances and behaviors, staff and inmates are all the same. It's also a way for him to connect. A man with facial tattoos and a small ponytail whispers in his ear about a problem. "Cell fifty?" he says. "I'll come talk to you later."

Working with the inmates, he says, is the best part of the job. He is known for asking them, "What do I have to do to keep you from coming back here?" To help ensure this, Garvey has improved the release process. Inmates who leave the jail with a job they've already started, supports in place such as AA, and money in the bank for rent and security deposit are far less likely to fall back into old habits. So the staff helps make this happen by hosting monthly round-table meetings with outside social services agencies, parole officers, and caseworkers.

A skinny, talkative man named Fred, who lives in a small town near the Quabbin Reservoir with his wife and three kids, went through this reentry process. (He asked for a measure of anonymity to protect his children.) He was originally given a three-to-five-year sentence at the maximum security prison in Walpole for a barroom fight in which his opponent lost part of a finger. He petitioned for a transfer to the Hampshire County Jail, was approved, and believes it changed his life. "Besides my family, going to that jail was the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "Absolutely, by far."

Fred initially resisted the jail's programs. "Who wants to sit in a room with 30 other guys and pour their heart out?" he says. "Not me." When he arrived, he believed he shouldn't have been imprisoned and that he was the true victim. Why should he change? But he gradually began to see the threats he posed to his marriage and his family and embraced all the jail's services: He went to group therapy and family counseling, walked the labyrinth, passed the Amherst College class. He watched his second son take his first steps during a session of "Dad and Me," where inmates learn parenting skills and do science projects with their kids. He filled out the exercises in three workbooks from the Truthought program, which helped him identify his thinking errors.

"I used to think that all the problems around me were caused by other people," Fred says. "I was taking too much stuff personally. I had to prove that I was better, that I was right, that I was good. Mindy [Cady] made me realize that I have no control over anything besides myself. Now I know: There's always gonna be someone better than you, there's always gonna be someone worse. What are you gonna do about it? Just keep going."

Fred had typically blamed things on his wife, yelling at her for failing to see his side or interrupting her when she disagreed with him. In therapy sessions, his wife would start talking, he'd break in, and Cady would say, "Um, Fred, what's your thinking right now?"

"I thought I was a perfect father," Fred says. "It turns out I wasn't. I didn't realize how much pain I had caused my family. I didn't realize how controlling I was in my relationship with my wife. I didn't even know that word."

"We're in a far, far better place now," his wife says, "with more ability to communicate and support one another. He's kinder, calmer; he puts me and the kids before him. He was a good person before. He's a great person now."

Fred's story is not unusual in the Hampshire County Jail, which makes the Hampshire County Jail unusual. Whereas the national average of recidivism is about 60 percent at all correctional facilities — including, it must be said, at those with tougher populations than Garvey's — at this jail it's about 19 percent. This is one of the reasons why in 2002 the National Sheriffs' Association named Garvey Sheriff of the Year and in 2005 American Jails Magazine said his jail leadership was considered the best in the country.

Garvey's term ends in January, and he has chosen not to run again. "What are you going to do when you're retired?" an inmate from Charlestown asks him. "I don't know. Probably end up in jail," he says. "Is Suffolk County a good place for me to serve time?"

The man says no. "People here don't know how good they have it."

In truth, Garvey hasn't figured out what he'll do next, besides see more of his family and "maybe carry my wife's suitcase." He hopes that the next sheriff will be someone who "shares my views about rehabilitation and treatment and will expand on that." When he reflects on his time as sheriff, he credits "a great staff that has created so many different avenues for addressing our clients' issues" and admits, "I do think I've had a positive influence on a number of peoples' lives."

So does Attorney General Maura Healey, who calls him a friend and a mentor. "Sheriff Bob Garvey has led reforms to our criminal justice system with empathy and common sense," she says in a statement. "He has rebuilt and turned around countless lives . . . [and has] left a lasting impact on our entire state."

WHEN GARVEY ENTERS ONE OF THE "MODS" on the jail's grounds — four-, six-, and, eight-man bunk rooms along hallways connecting to a common area — an inmate in gray sweats with long black dreads says to him, "You're a good man."

Garvey responds, "You're funny."

Garvey shakes hands with an officer and says, "Looks good." The officer pats the patched wall and says, "We're still keeping the old lady upright."

Garvey explains that these modular buildings were added in 1987 to help relieve crowding at other facilities and were only supposed to last five years. Twenty-nine years later, he says, "the only reason they haven't blown away is thanks to our maintenance crew."

The state budget, Garvey says, is a chronic problem for this and other Massachusetts facilities. Over the past eight years, while labor, health, and other costs have risen far above the rate of inflation, the jail's appropriation from the state has gone down in real dollars by 5 percent. Garvey says "that's because inmates don't have anybody lobbying for them in Boston."

"If we don't address these people's issues and behavior, that costs the community more money," he says. And while funding goes down, his staff deals with ever-increasing social problems, from the opioid epidemic to a shortage of mental health services. "People who come into our jail are not generally healthy. They need medical and dental care, which I as the sheriff am obligated to provide. And if people have mental health problems, the courts often have no alternative but to send them to jail. That's really sinful."

As Garvey finishes his rounds and heads back to his office, an inmate sticks his head out of a door and yells down the hallway, "Sheriff!"

Garvey turns.

The inmate is beaming. "Negative forty!"

At first Garvey looks puzzled. Then he remembers: the Fahrenheit-Celsius problem.

"You're right!" Garvey calls back, flashing a broad grin. "I knew you'd figure it out."

Nathaniel Reade is a writer based in Northampton. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.