Sheriff Michael McCormack Takes Case for New County Jail Public


Amid the uncertainty of acquiring land for a new county jail on the grounds of Martha's Vineyard Airport, Dukes County sheriff Michael McCormack has kept busy reminding Island officials that the present jail and its site at the gateway to Edgartown's historic district is simply inadequate.

He launched a similar campaign when he first took office in January 1999.

This week, Sheriff McCormack gave the Gazette a tour of the current facility, discussing the building's history and highlighting the poor conditions.

Sheriff McCormack most recently made his case before the county commissioners last week and airport commission this week. At both meetings, he was supported by many of the Island's police chiefs and public safety personnel.

The county commissioners agreed unanimously last week that the present jail is in poor condition, posing a threat to the jail staff and inmates. They believe a new site is needed, and are pursuing 24.4 acres of land for a new jail at the airport's northeast quadrant.

The sheriff calls the site perfect because it is centrally located and in no one's backyard.

There are a number of obvious problems with the present facility:

The only woman's cell is 10.5 feet by 6.5 feet, with no windows in sight. The small kitchen area, part of which was expanded beyond the original house frame to create room for refrigerators, is used to cook 100 meals a day, 365 days a year. The basement ceiling is loaded with a network of exposed wiring, posing a fire risk. Holes around the basement show signs of rodent infestation.

Space is at a premium - a room called the multipurpose room is the only area for dining, visiting and any other programs. A roof below a second-story window often has items thrown up on it from the outside of the building for inmates to try to pick up; this can happen because there is no adequate fencing around the front and sides of the building.

According to the sheriff, the jail was once located where the Dukes County courthouse now stands, but then was moved out of town to its present site on one-and-a-quarter acres of land.

Construction of the two-story building began in 1873; occupants moved in by 1874. It was built with 12 single cells. At the time, the inmate population was at the most two.

"It served its purpose - it lasted; it's still here almost 130 years later," Sheriff McCormack said. "However, over the years the physical building itself has deteriorated even though lots of money has been spent for its upkeep and maintenance."

All the utilities and plumbing were installed later, which explains why the plumbing pipes and electrical wires run outside the walls parallel to the granite and brick cells.

Sheriff McCormack knows the building well. He and his wife moved into the home in 1973 - the building's 100-year anniversary - to act as the facility's superintendent, although they have since moved, in part to free up space.

As time went on, he said, the inmate population grew to about six, gradually increasing more over the years.

One factor contributing to inmate growth, said Sheriff McCormack, was that the Massachusetts legislature started to pass mandatory incarceration laws. Crimes such as certain drug offenses and second offenses of operating under the influence of alcohol became jailable.

"As a result, everyone throughout the commonwealth experienced a real spike in their jail populations," he said.

The spike, he added, caused the state in the mid-1980s to respond by constructing new jail facilities throughout the state.

During that period, said Mr. McCormack, former sheriff Christopher Look requested a replacement facility and used state grant money to develop a study. The study, released in 1990, recommended the northeast quadrant of the Martha's Vineyard airport grounds as the ideal site for a new jail.

"The study was put on the shelf," said Sheriff McCormack.

Nine years later, he went to the county commissioners and asked for a citizens' task force to study the jail; the study was finished in 11 months.

Both studies found that the present jail is woefully inadequate.

"Because of the age of the facility, the crowdedness, its location and safety factors, I went to the commission in 1999," he said.

The jail population had grown to an average of 34 by that time - an increase in activity that did not go unnoticed by neighbors.

Nearby residents complained, he said, about the language overheard from inmates playing basketball, the lights of the police cruisers transporting inmates, the sounds of arrestees arriving "in a less than courteous manner" and the lights put up to illuminate the parking lot behind the jail.

"Just the unsightliness of turning what was once a field from the back of the jail down to the end of Pine street into parking areas and recreational areas started to bother neighbors," he added.

But most important, said the sheriff, are safety issues. The cell blocks do not have a secondary means of exit. The brick and granite cells are attached to the wooden structure of the original house frame. He said that the wood is very dried out; if there were ever a fire, the wood structure would go up, he said, and inmates would have to run through the flames or stay in their cells until rescued.

The cell locks are also a problem, he said. They are old and there is no universal key for them. It takes two hands to open the lock, one to turn the key, another to turn the latch.

"The potential here for a human tragedy is great," said Sheriff McCormack.

While the need for a new facility is not hotly contested, some questions have been raised. One concern is that a new jail would house state prisoners and those who have committed high crimes.

Sheriff McCormack said the transfer of a state inmate can only occur with permission by the sheriff of the county. Inmates on the state level, he said, are mostly high-security, high-risk people.

"By constructing a medium to minimum-security system with more dormitory-style housing or multiple cell occupancy, that would prevent the maximum-security inmates from being here," he said.

Size is a big issue for the sheriff. With an average daily inmate population of 34, the current facility just barely meets demand with 36 beds, although without ideal conditions.

Looking 25 years ahead, he said, the task force considered a variety of factors such as cells for those waiting trial and cells for juveniles under the age of 17.

The jail's needs are as follows: thirty beds for lockup, four for women, four for juveniles, and 34 for the current population. In sum, the task force recommended a new facility with 78 beds, although that number, the sheriff said, is negotiable.

At peak times in the summer, somewhere between 30 and 35 people can be arrested, whether at "a huge party busted up or a real problem on Circuit avenue," he said.

"Presently, if large groups were arrested we had to handcuff them to the chain-link fence outside, or handcuff them on a bar inside a converted bus," said Sheriff McCormack. "We have been creative over the years, but we are pushing the envelope of liability."

To those who wonder if locking up more people is a proper policy, Sheriff McCormack said, "During the task force study, many said the great majority of people incarcerated are not really criminals, but were people with substance abuse issues and shouldn't be incarcerated."

The sheriff thought such a claim was correct. In response, he created a community corrections program as an alternative to incarceration for offenders who have committed a crime and have substance abuse issues.

He said instead of being in jail, such offenders undergo substance abuse counseling, must perform community service hours, can get a G.E.D. if need be and receive life-skills training.

The sheriff said the average daily population of the program is eight to 14.

"The safety issues for people who work here and live here are my greatest concern," he said. "The liability to the community, should there ever be a disaster here, would be greater than the cost of replacing the facility now."

If the sheriff is allowed to use the site on the airport grounds, in all likelihood he would receive state funding for the new jail. He estimated it would take three years for the facility to be up and running once the site is approved.

"Meanwhile, what am I going to do for the next three years?" he asked.

One thing he is doing is using an old classroom building, 60 feet by 20 feet, from the Edgartown elementary school, and attempting to tack it on to the back for more space - half for cells, half for day rooms. Other work is going on as well, such as a new booking room, developed off the back of the original house structure. Every inch of the home is being used, and additional space has been added using some creative thinking.

For instance, the room where the sheriff was interviewed occupied a third of what was once the home's living room.

"This is the office the assistant deputy chief uses," he said. "I don't have an office, I share this. There isn't enough room in here for my own office.

"Any member of the public can come and take a look, and I can almost guarantee anyone who sees the facility will agree there is a need to replace the facility."