Hampshire County sheriff candidates compete in the first forum

EASTHAMPTON — Candidates for sheriff are conducting an active campaign, criss-crossing Hampshire County, to introduce themselves to voters as part of a public education push aimed at boosting interest in sheriff’s races nationwide.

The Easthampton Democratic City Committee will host a mask-optional candidate forum on Thursday, August 4 from 7-9 p.m. in the second floor conference room at 50 Payson Ave. The three Democratic candidates in the race are expected to participate.

There are no Republican candidates and one independent, John Vanasse, dropped out of the race in June. The Sept. 6 Democratic primary will determine the sole candidate in the Nov. 8 general election.

The moderator is Jackie Brousseau-Pereira, Chair of the Democratic Committee. Easthampton Media plans to broadcast the Forum live on cable channels 191 and 193 and video will be available online at a later date.

The public can send suggested questions to [email protected]

Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane is running for a second six-year term against two women who once worked for his administration at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction in Northampton: Yvonne Gittelson von Goshen, the State Department of Education’s corrections program specialist , and Caitlin Sepeda of South Hadley, a nurse at the Berkshire County Jail.

“I’m happy that there’s a race this year and I think it’s important to have two women competing,” said Brousseau-Pereira, which is unusual for the Hampshire County position. “I think people want to know more about what’s going on in prison. Who is in it and how is it funded? … What are the conditions for inmates and staff? Do these two groups of stakeholders feel safe, are they being listened to, and do they feel that their needs are being met?”

The candidates are vocal supporters of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts’ national awareness campaign, “Know Your Sheriff,” and have completed questionnaires available online at https://bit.ly/3S4bhOX.

According to an ACLU and Beacon Research poll released April 13, only 17% of Bay State voters can identify their county sheriff, and 13% of Hampshire County voters correctly identified Cahillane. Respondents also expressed a lack of understanding about a sheriff’s job, the pay, and the fact that they are elected.

“I hope to discuss some of the innovative programs we have recently launched such as our pizza project, our landscaping program and the $167,473 grant we recently received from the state Department of Education that is helping to strengthen our educational programs will,” Cahillane said of the upcoming candidate forum.

The issue of mental health and substance abuse treatment in prison is likely to emerge as Sepeda continues to criticize the incumbent over his record. In a social media post last week, Sepeda wrote that members of her campaign “suspect [Cahillane] doesn’t really understand the full spectrum of mental illness and the right ways to deal with it.”

“While other facilities are hiring psychiatric staff in droves, the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office has had exactly the same number of mental health providers for more than 6 years, even though more than 50% of the population has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness,” Sepeda wrote. She said the prison needs “a real mental health department, made up of licensed staff who are available for extended periods.”

Gittelson expressed a similar concern in a social media post last week, citing a recent report on correctional funding that showed “about 80% of those affected by justice in the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office are at a suffer from a substance use disorder”.

Cahillane said that “with a third of our staff dedicated to providing treatment services to the men in our care, we continue to provide a full range of mental health programs and services.” He pointed out that Northampton Prison is one of the was the first in the state to offer drug-assisted treatment to inmates with opioid use disorders, and last year the prison received federal recognition as an opioid treatment program.

Gittelson has criticized Cahillane’s acceptance of campaign contributions from sheriff’s office employees. During the 2016 race, Gittelson writes on her blog, state campaign finance regulators forced Cahillane, then the prison’s deputy chief, to return $10,010 in donations from prison employees. Now that he’s an elected official, the rules are different and he’s allowed to accept donations from employees.

“[M]Most people would understand the implied pressure to contribute to the boss’s campaign. How about if you don’t?” Gittelson wrote about the current race. “To date, the[sheriff’s office]staff has donated more than $3,500 to the chief’s coffers … This isn’t just a matter of bad looks, it’s bad practice and a bad way of running a government agency, its employees be paid by the taxpayer.”

Cahillane said employees are free to exercise their rights by donating to candidates and causes they support.

“I would hope that a candidate for public office, particularly a person proposing to be a Democrat, would not require public officials to relinquish their First Amendment right to free speech and express themselves within the limits of their own discretion.” electoral processes comply with state electoral laws,” Cahillane said.

More sheriff candidate forums are planned in the area next month, including one on August 25 at 7pm co-sponsored by the Amherst and Northampton Leagues of Women Voters and the Daily Hampshire Gazette. The Forum will be held in person at the Northampton Center for the Arts, 33 Hawley St. and will be broadcast by Amherst Media and Northampton Open Media.

Brian Steele can be reached at [email protected]

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