Long-distance lockup | Out-of-county jail deepens women's woes


After her arrest in Pittsfield, Tracey Santiago spent a night at the local jail. The next morning, unable to make $20,000 bail, Santiago was shackled and driven an hour to Chicopee.

The van rolled up a steep driveway to the Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center, with views of the Connecticut River Valley and, beyond that, to hills that stretch into the Berkshires. It's the largest of two women's jails for half the state. And it would be Santiago's home for more than seven months while she awaited trial.

A Lenox man arrested with Santiago also spent a night at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction in Pittsfield. But there he would stay — closer to his attorney and to the courthouse for his arraignment and the many proceedings to follow.

They followed separate paths through the criminal justice system, one for men, another for women, raising questions about whether women receive equal access to justice in Berkshire County.

While sending women to the Chicopee jail solves a logistics problem for the Berkshire County sheriff, it results in a system that treats women in custody differently than men, making it harder and more expensive for them to remain in touch with families and complicating their access to legal representation.

For Jennifer Thurston, of Adams, it means phone and travel costs that exceed what her disabled husband can afford. For Ajen Rowe, of Worcester, it meant not seeing her mother for months because her mom doesn't own a car.

For Tina Lorette, it meant not having a visit from her parents because they couldn't afford to fix their truck for the two-hour round-trip ride from Lenox.

To be sure, the additional distance they must travel to court hearings is just one of many problems facing these women, most of whose lives are marked by poverty, substance abuse, addiction and, for some, sex trafficking.

Still, distance from their lawyers and families compounds the challenges faced by women who hold no political power and evoke little sympathy from the public.

"These are debtors' prisons," said Lois Ahrens, director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project in Northampton. "The vast majority of women that are held are not dangerous, they are there because they're poor. A woman who gets picked up for sex work — she doesn't have $500, or she wouldn't be on the street."

Officials, including Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler and local lawmakers, concede that the arrangement is not ideal for women. But changing it would require turning a bureaucratic ship backed by millions of state dollars, one limited by its own rules governing incarcerated people.

Berkshire County no longer has a jail that can hold women. Since 2014, women awaiting trial or sentenced to up to 2 years have been sent to the Chicopee facility that was completed in 2007 and is run by the Hampden County Sheriff's Department. Statewide, women sentenced to more than 2 years usually go to the state prison at MCI-Framingham, which is run by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.

The Pittsfield jail still holds women overnight, until they can post bail or attend their arraignments. But many can't afford even low bail amounts, and so women from Berkshire and Worcester counties, as well as some from Hampshire County, land in Chicopee with Hampden County women.

Franklin County also was sending its women to Chicopee until February. That is when Sheriff Christopher Donelan opened a 50-bed substance abuse treatment unit at his Greenfield jail, as well as space for detained women who are not in treatment. Donelan said the new unit came in response to a plea from the community that women receive the same in-county treatment options in jail as men. As of Jan. 31, this unit held 36 women, 19 of whom are awaiting trial, and 33 of them in treatment.

Hampshire County women can now be held in the Greenfield jail if it is closer to home than the women's jail in Chicopee, which, as of Jan. 30, held 187 women, 23 of whom are from Berkshire County. Of these Berkshire women, 12 are awaiting trial, and the others have been sentenced after a conviction.

But men in the region, and across the state, stay in their home county jails.

In Bowler's perfect world, Berkshire County women would be jailed close to home.

"We want women to be here, but it will take a big push," he said, adding that lawmakers likely have other spending priorities. He said now that the state has paid for the regional jail, it would be a long shot to get capital funds for female housing in Berkshire County.

"We already have a process in place right now and it's working we know it's an inconvenience to attorneys and others, but we try," Bowler said.

Bowler has been promised $2.5 million for a new pre-release center for men in Pittsfield. He said this past week that he is asking state officials to allow him to also hold women who are transitioning home from Chicopee. The sheriff is waiting on approval to tap a capital bond that has been allocated. The center would house more than 30 men and women who are beginning to integrate back into the community. It would keep pre-release women in Chicopee from having to make trips back and forth to Pittsfield to connect to services that will help them settle back in at home safely.

"I know this is not a priority of the legislative body," Bowler said of moving the women back to Berkshire County. "There are so many other projects — jails and correctional facilities in dire need of renovation. We're on the low end of the totem pole here."

In the early 2000s, pleas from the region helped secure passage of a $26 million bond bill for construction of the Chicopee jail. Sheriffs argued that, faced with a need to house small numbers of incarcerated women, a regional facility could save money and provide better services.

Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. was a senator when sheriffs in Western Massachusetts joined to push for a regional approach, given the small numbers of female detainees coming through their jails. "I supported that in theory," Nuciforo said.

"It's very expensive to replicate [inmate] services on a per capita basis," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "We have to make financial decisions. In the early 2000s, four western county sheriffs said there were not enough women to justify staffing."

Because fewer women than men are held, jails mostly cater to men. Complicating things further, jails have to separate people awaiting trial from those who have been sentenced.

Without all these constraints, officials say the Chicopee jail can offer women therapeutic programs and education, midwifery and obstetrics, and it doesn't have to worry about keeping the genders separate by "sight and sound," as state law requires.

But the distance raises questions about whether the regional jailing system provides fairness and equity for women.

Andrea Harrington, the current Berkshire District Attorney, and Paul Caccaviello, who held the post for most of 2018, have said they oppose the practice of holding Berkshire County women in Chicopee.

Caccaviello said that if he had remained in office, he would have "wholeheartedly" supported any move to enable the Pittsfield jail to house and provide services to female detainees. Asked about the issue before her election in November, Harrington noted that many women from the region housed at the Chicopee jail pre-trial are there because they cannot pay bail.

"As the district attorney, I would urge the sheriff to return Berkshire women to the Berkshire County House of Correction in the interests of justice," Harrington said.

"This practice makes it more difficult for Berkshire women to mount a defense to their criminal charges. It is difficult for attorneys and other experts to meet with a client who is further away," she said.

Harrington said that the distance limits a defense attorney's ability to influence the timing of cases, including which judges end up hearing them.

Now in office, Harrington last week pledged to improve conditions for incarcerated women and to keep low-risk offenders out of jail.

Other area lawmakers generally say they'd like to see women who face charges be held in the area, not sent to Chicopee. But the cost of doing that might be prohibitive, several said.

Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said she questioned the decision to shift women to the regional jail when it occurred.

"I was concerned about these women being far from their families, including sometimes their children," she said.

Farley-Bouvier said she was told at the time that the Chicopee jail's programs would be better than the help women could get in Pittsfield.

"A discussion revisiting the issue is a worthy one," she said.

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said he looked into the regional jail arrangement after being asked about it by The Eagle.

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"We often take a regional approach in rural Western Massachusetts, and I understand the idea is to share responsibilities and save on overall costs," Mark said. "We are always expected to do less with more, and we do a really great job under the circumstances, but unfortunately, our geography sometimes means saving money creates a situation that is not ideal."

Mark said he stands ready to help Bowler secure funding for new projects.

"This is one area where I am ready to assist him as needed," Mark said.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said he supports finding a way to return to holding female detainees in Pittsfield. Hinds said people in custody fare better when closer to home "for a whole range of reasons," including access to family visits.

The two barriers to doing that, he said, involve keeping male and female populations separate in Pittsfield and providing the same level of rehabilitation programs available in Chicopee.

Having women held locally again makes sense, Hinds said, if there is enough support to provide money for a new building, the staff to run it and other expenses.

Costly and complicated

The Chicopee jail's distance from most of the communities it serves creates a logistical nightmare for poor people in three counties. If a woman's problems haven't already severed ties with loved ones on the outside, a visit to the jail will require a long haul — that's if they even have a car.

It's a 74-mile one-way drive from Williamstown, and even farther for families in eastern Worcester County, where Fitchburg relatives of a woman detained in Chicopee would have to drive 81 miles each way, plus pay tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Even somewhat shorter distances to the jail can prove hard to manage.

Jessica Ramirez didn't see her son, then 4, more than once every 30 days during her four-month stay in Chicopee, though her son lived with her mother-in-law in Greenfield, about a 40-minute ride away on Interstate 91.

Ramirez, jailed for a drug trafficking offense, said that between the Chicopee jail's limited visiting hours and her child's school schedule, Ramirez's mother-in-law had trouble finding time away from her full-time job to bring him for a visit. Further complicating visits were her son's bouts with a chronic illness that required him to use a breathing machine.

"He could only come when he wasn't sick," said Ramirez, 30, who has dealt with substance abuse.

Wahya Wolfpaw couldn't get to the jail because she doesn't own a car. Wolfpaw struggled to stay in touch with her daughter, Ajen Rowe, who was released in November, after a five-month detention in Chicopee for heroin distribution and a probation violation.

"Most of the people I know do not have a car," said Wolfpaw, who lives in Worcester on $750 per month in disability income and scrambled to pay for daily phone calls to and from Rowe. "That's a luxury. When you're poor, it's hard."

Wolfpaw didn't see her daughter during that time, but managed to catch a ride there to sit for the orientation program required for visits. The orientations must be done on a separate day before the first visit and are part of the visitor approval process.

Wolfpaw thought all the time about how she could get to Chicopee. She entertained taking a Peter Pan bus or Amtrak to Springfield, then coordinating with the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, which has a bus stop near the bottom of the jail's driveway.

Wolfpaw did manage to get another lift to the jail while her daughter was held, but had violated a visitation policy — she says by accident — and was refused a visit.

Some family members of incarcerated women do have cars, but often the vehicles have seen better days.

"I don't think it will make it to Chicopee," Edward Lorette, of Lenox, said of his truck. His daughter, Tina, who is no longer in Chicopee, has struggled with addiction, and was jailed last year for selling heroin. "We'll have to get a ride out there."

Lorette, 60, said he is on disability and couldn't afford to get his truck fixed for the two-hour round-trip ride from Lenox. He said it would have been a lot easier for him and his wife, Terry, if the jail were still in Pittsfield. Instead of visits, Lorette added money to his daughter's phone account so he could stay in touch with her.

The distance makes phone calls to and from the jail more important, but the cost can quickly add up. Global Tel-Link Corp. holds an exclusive contract with the jail and charges 12 cents a minute for service. Though it shares revenue with the jail, critics say the deal leaves poor families to subsidize some of the jail's costs. That system is under legal attack in Massachusetts and throughout the U.S.

Access to lawyers

Being locked up in a distant county can destabilize a woman's already-fragile existence, according to lawyers who represent these clients. Even with a good visitation policy in Chicopee, the distance is hard to handle, attorneys say. When women began to be sent away in 2014, local defense attorneys expressed concerns.

Pittsfield attorney Katherine Brennan said the problem goes beyond the physical distance.

"A lot of times you have to coordinate things with witnesses and family members and usually everybody is around here," she said, referring to Pittsfield. "And the client is held in Chicopee, so it kind of makes it more difficult."

Another local attorney said the distance creates a gender inequity that might affect legal access for these women, given what can be hours of driving for attorneys managing many clients' cases.

"It's difficult to prepare your client and meet with your client," said Judith Knight, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for Berkshire district attorney. "Especially when preparing for trial, or preparing for a plea where you really need to meet with a client, or if new discovery becomes available."

Knight said the distance also is problematic in situations where an attorney simply needs to drop off information for a female client while preparing for a court date.

"It's more difficult than going to Pittsfield, where you can just get in and out in 30 minutes," she said, comparing travel to Chicopee with easier trips to the men's jail. "It's not impossible, but it's a lot of wear and tear."

Knight also said it makes for more reliance on phone calls, which can be hard to coordinate.

Leominster criminal defense attorney Elizabeth Halloran says phone calls often aren't enough to provide high-quality legal counsel. "I think it's more important to meet face-to-face, especially when reviewing evidence that is going to be used against someone, to be able to sit down and go through that," said Halloran, a former Worcester County prosecutor.

One Berkshire County attorney said he has seen bar advocates try to avoid taking women's cases by telling judges they have scheduling conflicts, when it is likely that the driving time to Chicopee is itself the problem.

Public defenders in Berkshire County, who work under the Committee for Public Counsel Services, declined to comment. Neither Anthony Benedetti, the chief counsel for the agency, nor Lisa Hewitt, its general counsel, responded to requests for comment.

The sheriffs and state lawmakers say sending women to Chicopee works, and is financially prudent and efficient.

But activists, like Ahrens, say it might be smarter and more compassionate to put the money into local community support and services for women, since most are mothers who are jailed for nonviolent crimes because they are poor.

And jail time far away also punishes families like Thurston's. Thurston spent 90 days at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction after her first offense. Thurston said being jailed closer to home would solve a lot of problems, mostly for her family.

"I'd be closer, and feeling like I'm home, at least," she said. "It's harder for the family than it is for us."

The Eagle's Bob Dunn contributed reporting to this story.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and at 413-329-6871.


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