For more than four decades, Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr. has made it his business to care for “the least loved of our society.”
Many inmates in his custody have led reckless lives, he said, yielding little more than middle school educations and struggles with drugs, alcohol, or mental illness.
“When that inmate first comes to the jail or the house of correction, I want to try to capture his heart and mind,” Ashe, 77, said Friday in a telephone interview. “Anybody can lock somebody up. It’s about building that strong bridge back to the community.”
Ashe’s 42 years as sheriff ends Tuesday. His successor, Nick Cocchi, who has worked for Ashe for 23 years, is scheduled to be sworn in Wednesday during a ceremony in Ludlow.
James Walsh, executive director of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association, said Ashe is believed to be the state’s longest-serving sheriff since the position became an elected post in 1855.
“The real legacy of Mike Ashe is the number of lives he’s helped reconstruct,” Walsh said. “I can tell you he’s going to be missed.”
Under Ashe, a former social worker, the sheriff’s department has been singled out as a national model for rehabilitating inmates. He said the key is preparing prisoners to return to society and stay there. That work, Ashe said, begins the moment inmates arrive.
“Everybody has dignity and everybody has potential,” he said.
Inmates complete a mandatory orientation program in which they learn about programs for education, job training, employment, health care, and treatment for substance abuse and mental illness.
Many opportunities were pioneered by Ashe, who was the first sheriff to permit some inmates to finish their sentences at home or in unlocked facilities while they worked.
Once prisoners leave, they can enroll in a program in downtown Springfield to help them get back on their feet, and some return for an annual graduation ceremony in which ex-inmates celebrate their accomplishments with family and friends.
Ashe’s office also runs a correctional center for women in Chicopee and a 13-week substance abuse treatment program in Springfield.
“He’s helped many, many thousands get their education and come back out as model citizens,” said Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. “He is the gold standard.”
Ashe was elected sheriff in 1974 after he and his wife, Barbara, served as the first house parents at Downey Side Homes for Youth, a facility for foster children.
He made headlines in 1990 after he moved inmates into a National Guard armory in Springfield to relieve chronic overcrowding at an antiquated county jail.
The move paved the way for the state to build a new facility. Former state Senator Linda Melconian recalled telephoning Ashe’s house at 4 a.m. to tell him lawmakers had approved funding for the multi-million dollar project.
Ashe’s wife had to wake him up, she said.
“Of course, he got on the phone,” Melconian said. “I don’t think he went back to sleep.”
Cocchi, 44, said he wants to continue Ashe’s work.
“If I can be half the sheriff Mike Ashe is we’re going to be successful,” he said.
Ashe, who raised eight foster children and six of his own, said he doesn’t have future plans beyond taking his wife to lunch Thursday and seeing the movie “Fences.”
He said he hopes to continue to work in the community.
“The inmates have taught me the investments that we’re making in them are worthwhile,” Ashe said. “If you challenge them, hold them accountable, and provide reasonable goals, they can succeed.”