I-Team: Pandemic’s effect on incarceration rates at local jails

I-Team

GREENFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – When the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in the U.S., jails became a revolving door to help keep inmates safe.

Some had outbreaks, and out of fear for more, the decision was made to release inmates back out to the community.

“This was the strategy of the legal community, which thought the sheriffs couldn’t keep our populations safe. What happened is you had healthy non-COVID individuals released to jails, overdosing, getting exposed to the disease. In some instances documented in some counties, there were inmates found dead. The whole thing has been a tragedy the way its been handled.”

Franklin County Sheriff, Christopher Donelan

Sheriff Donelan told the I-Team the total inmate population decreased from about 200 at the start of the pandemic, to 130. Over 80 percent of their inmates have charges that include substance abuse.

“The typical charges we have are assault and battery, and breaking and entering, but very often those charges are coupled with drug possession,” said Sheriff Donelan.

It has been a similar situation at the Hampden County Jail, a facility that can hold up to 962 inmates, but their population has also been plummeting. Out of all inmates, 40 percent have committed a violent crime, and the I-Team found out 87 percent of them are also dealing a substance use or mental health disorder.

“87 percent, that’s astronomical, said Sheriff Nick Cocchi. “Now I believe many are being released and aren’t being given the chance.”

Sheriff Nick Cocchi told the I-Team incarceration is meant to be the beginning of a transformation, with the goal being to get them back into society as productive, and respectful citizens. But he said there are many people, including the courts, that don’t see it that way.

“I’m going to sound crazy here, but you go in front of a judge and you don’t go to jail, I’m saying these people aren’t given a chance to change the way they are behaving and actually have a better look on life.”

Sheriff Cocchi

When you look at the racial background of inmates currently at the Hampden County Jail, 28 percent are white, 20 percent are black, and 51 percent are Latino. In Franklin County, the white population at the jail is much higher at 85 percent, with the remaining 15 percent being split between black and Latino men.

The Harvard Law School released the results from a four-year study highlighting racial disparities in the justice system. The imprisonment rate for black residents was eight times greater in Massachusetts than the rest of the country. For Hispanics, it was about 5 times greater.

The 22News I-Team also obtained data on inmate convictions and the racial makeup of them at the Berkshire County and Hampshire County Jails.

The Berkshire County Jail can hold up to 538 inmates, but currently they have 143 at their facility, which is less than 27 percent of their capacity. 11 are there on murder charges, and 87 on dangerousness grounds. The racial makeup of sentenced and pre-trial detainees is 56 percent white, 33 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic. They have had no cases of COVID-19 since start of the pandemic.

Hampshire County Jail can hold 284 inmates, and currently has 110. They told the I-Team that they do not divulge conviction information. They’ve had no cases since May 1st. Black inmates make up 20 percent of the population, 78 percent are white, and 2 percent are Asian.

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