'The best jail': Former detainees value Chicopee's programs, but 'don't ever want to go back'
CHICOPEE — "Love & Violence." "Understanding Trauma." "Dialectical Behavior Therapy."
Workshops like these are on offer at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center in Chicopee for women who are serving jail sentences of up to 2 years.
If you end up in jail, this is where to be, say some former inmates.
"I feel it's true that Chicopee helps people have better lives," said Tracey Santiago, who spent 7 months at the jail while awaiting trial on heroin-trafficking charges. She went on to live at Keenan House, a substance abuse recovery home in Pittsfield.
"I'm now available to my kids and my husband," said Shannon Caporale, 47, who also lived in Keenan House.
Caporale, who has also been jailed in Berkshire County, spent 3 months in Chicopee, which she described as "the best jail." She said she got what she could from her time in detention and said the atmosphere supported her move to sobriety.
Hampden County Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi said the program tries to give women opportunities to grow and heal ahead of release.
In an interview in administrative offices near the jail entrance, the assistant superintendent, Patricia Murphy, and three counselors detailed programs they offer for women, most of whom are there because of addiction.
"When women leave [the jail], they say, `Please say thank you to officer such-and-such for taking care of me,' " Murphy said. It doesn't happen all the time, she said, but enough to affirm for her that the jail's mission is working.
"We try to do a lot in a short time," said Melissa Miele, a correctional counselor, speaking to most of the women's uncertain release dates.
Most women in Chicopee haven't been convicted. They are here because they can't afford bail.
Miele is greeted warmly by women who have just finished lunch when she arrives at the jail cafeteria on grilled cheese day. She said counselors try to help women at the jail find "safety and resiliency."
Every woman who arrives starts with an extensive physical and mental health check at the jail's medical center. That includes gynecologic, obstetric and dental care. If pregnant, a woman will go for visits at nearby Baystate Medical Center, and will deliver there, unshackled, according to jail staff.
New arrivals move through a three-week program that begins with group therapy that explores themes that include "empowerment" and "attitudes," as well as discussions of substance abuse, work, parenting and sex trafficking.
Women who have not finished high school or earned an equivalent diploma are automatically enrolled in classes.
Whether pretrial or sentenced, all women can work in the jail, and can earn "good time credit" and stipends of $1 to $3 per day. There is also access to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as religious programs such as "Encounter Christ."
Women serving sentences can move into a third phase of programs that include longer sessions and more intensive therapy. They also can have access to medically assisted substance abuse treatment with drugs like Vivitrol, which blocks urges and cravings, said Francesca Porter, a substance abuse counselor.
And women in the "step-down" to release, or those in minimum security, can start programs that get them ready for jobs when they leave.
Much in common
The women in Chicopee are alike in many ways — lives that have included substance abuse, poverty, untreated mental health disorders, violence and sexual abuse that started early. Former Sheriff Michael Ashe built a "trauma-informed" women's jail where the doors, for instance, are made of wood rather than metal, and do not slam shut.
About 87 to 95 percent of women in the jail contend with a substance abuse disorder. About 80 percent are mothers. One-fourth have finished high school. Gangs complicate some lives here, whether as a member or a girlfriend — either of which can cause problems in the jail.
And many are victims of sex trafficking, which is more rampant in Western Massachusetts than people think, Cocchi told The Eagle. Women tend to keep quiet about this out of shame, he said.
Overwhelmingly, the women here are poor, and can't post bail, Miele said.
One of the first people who detainees from outside Hampden County meet is Mary Quinn.
"The first question I say to them is, `What happened to you?' " Quinn said. "I think that's certainly very different than, `What's the matter with you?' I think they've heard lots of messages like that for a long time "
Quinn and Miele said the women they work with are caught in a cycle of traumatization.
When Quinn talks to women, she takes a compassionate position. " `This wasn't your life plan,' " Quinn says to them, " `so, what happened? That's part of your journey here, which is to kind of heal and regain hope, and that life can be different for you.' "
Series of sorrows
Santiago did regain hope at the Chicopee jail, but only after a series of sorrows.
She speaks of the "streetwise" ways that got her locked up, the many foster homes of her childhood, an inability to build relationships and the heroin use that began after she lost custody of her two young children.
After that: prostitution and drug sales to support an addiction. "Nothing I ever wanted to have to do."
Jail officials acknowledge that time inside is traumatic in itself, which is why, upon entry, women are given an orientation that explores this.
Staff say they watch for signs a woman is struggling, and the cells are suicide-proofed. There has been one suicide here since the jail opened.
While jail staff say they work to accommodate family visits, there are still rules, and a woman is still in jail.
"No kissing," says a sign in the visiting area. A male guard monitors the room. There are about 72 men and 100 women working at the jail. The badge on their uniforms says: "Firmness but Fairness."
"The holidays can be very difficult here for moms," Porter said. The jail holds a Christmas party and holiday programs with visiting families that include presents for children.
It is the sense of limbo faced by women detained while awaiting trial is an issue staff try to address.
"It's the pretrial [women] that are a particularly vulnerable population, I think," Quinn said.
Officials work to reconnect women with their home communities.
Quinn handles that, in concert with Lindsay Maynard, a liaison between the Hampden and Berkshire sheriffs' departments who says this integration work gives women "a fighting chance."
Quinn is the person who, upon a woman's release, arms her with booklets of Berkshire County resources, and lots of phone numbers, including her own. She and a group of mentors, as well as Maynard, see to it that women aren't just "blowing in the breeze," Quinn said. Many women, she added, have "shaky home plans."
"Twenty-four hours post-release is critical," Quinn said. "If they don't have a fluid plan, they're vulnerable. [We say] `No, we're not just dropping you on North Street in Pittsfield.' "
Santiago says she is now holding steady, and found a special joy in helping other women at Keenan House do the same. Despite her pretrial status when she was in jail, she said her stay at Chicopee helped her kick a heroin habit and to heal in other ways.
But she also said she'd rather not be in any jail.
"I don't ever want to go back."
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