There’s a lack of facilities for female inmates in Essex County. New Sheriff Kevin Coppinger wants to do something about it.
“Most female clients are sent to the state women’s facility in Framingham,” he said. “I have concerns that pretrial detainees are being held with convicted inmates in Framingham. It is also hard for these women to be so far from families.”
In July, the Essex County Sheriff’s Department established 42 female detox beds at the Middleton jail. There are an additional 24 beds at the Women in Transition prerelease program in Salisbury, which opened in 2001, for nonviolent offenders with drug and alcohol addictions. The rest of the female population must go to the state prison for women in Framingham.
During January, the average number of Essex County women held daily in Framingham was 90: 58 were being held pretrial, and 32 were serving sentences.
Coppinger is focused on how best his department can prepare inmates to return to the community.
“The opioid epidemic is destroying lives and families,” he said. “It is driving the prison population. Women are not immune. Having female detox beds in Essex County is very important because it keeps these women close to home and family at a critical time.”
Essex County reports 62 percent of women who go through the Middleton detox program are mothers. Of the 34 women held on March 15 prior to trial, 23 were arrested on drug-related charges.
With over three decades as a police officer and seven years as chief in Lynn, Coppinger has seen firsthand the role opioids play in the repeating cycle of crime, punishment, and return to crime.
“About one half of all inmates released into the community end up back in here. We need to do better,” he said.
“Heroin is a big issue. A lot of the folks we have in our custody, male and female, have addiction issues or need mental health services or both. You can’t just lock up someone with an addiction problem and expect they will come out any better than when they went in.
“We do the best we can during the time our clients are in the 28-day detox program. They often need additional community-based services and treatment when they are released.”
During a pretrial hearing, it is the judge’s decision whether to send a woman to detox or to Framingham.
Since the Middleton detox beds opened in July, the Essex County staff has been reaching out to judges to make sure they know the detox beds are an option, according to Dennis Newman, Coppinger’s chief of staff. Some women, including those arrested for dealing drugs and violent offenders, are not eligible for detox.
The program includes clinical evaluation and a treatment plan supervised by a case manager.
Beyond the need to keep female detainees close to families, housing them in Framingham is costly because the women have to be transported from Framingham to local court appearances. Trips to Gloucester, Lawrence, and Newburyport are all about 60 miles.
“This is a logistical issue,” said Coppinger. “Imagine trying to get a woman from MCI Framingham to court in Salem for 8 a.m.”
The Essex County Sheriff’s Department averages 22 round trips a month to Framingham for court appearances. Each transport requires two corrections officers.
In the end, the lack of facilities for women in Essex County comes down to budget. The Essex County Sheriff’s Department is projected to run a $19 million deficit this year.
“The men’s prison was designed for 600 beds,” Coppinger said of the facility in Middleton, built in 1991. “Shortly after it was built, it was necessary to convert nearly all cells from single to double.”
There is no space to convert prison cells for women. The male prison population is overcrowded, averaging close to 1,200 per day during January, according to Newman.
Coppinger, who was elected in November, has requested that State Auditor Suzanne Bump conduct a full audit of all financials, programs, and services as part of his transition as sheriff. No changes are expected until after the audit.
Meanwhile, the sheriff is working with state legislators on future options for female prisoners in Essex County.
“The Senate has a strong desire to reduce the incarceration and recidivism rate for women, ensure proper access to treatment and services, and to keep citizens of the Commonwealth safe,” said state Senator Joan Lovely of Salem. “I recently met with the sheriff and Essex County district attorney [Jonathan W. Blodgett] and look forward to working with them and my colleagues in the Legislature collaboratively on these issues and on the issue of funding.
“All of these issues are related. The reality is we are spending far too much on a criminal justice system that is not as effective as we would like it to be. We’re focused on changing that.”
90 — Average daily number of Essex County inmates held at MCI Framingham during January (58 were held pretrial, and 32 were serving sentences).
22 — Average number of round trips to bring women from MCI Framingham to court appearances in Essex County per month.
42 — Female slots in Middleton Detox Unit.
34 — Number of inmates in the female detox unit on March 15 (23 were arrested on drug-related charges).
24 — Beds at the Women in Transition prerelease facility in Salisbury.
22 — Inmates in Salisbury on March 15.