Last week's arrival of a Saudi prince as an inmate at the Edgartown House of Correction is part of a continuing practice in which the Vineyard facility has housed prisoners from off-Island.
Attorneys for Prince Bader al-Saud, 23, who was charged with motor vehicle homicide while drunk, negotiated a plea agreement under which the distant member of the Saudi royal family would serve a year in the Vineyard jail rather than the Suffolk County House of Correction in Roxbury.
The Vineyard setting for Mr. al-Saud's incarceration enraged members of the family of victim Orlando Ramos. Mr. Ramos, 37, was struck and killed in 2002 on a Boston street by a luxury sport utility vehicle driven by Mr. al-Saud.
Speaking in court, Mr. Ramos's sister, Reyita Ramos, called the Vineyard sentence "a slap in the face," according to the Boston Globe.
"We know there are so many people who never would have gotten that chance," Ms. Ramos said after the sentencing. "I don't care what anybody says: Money talks."
But the Vineyard jail, which can house 36 inmates, commonly has housed one or more prisoners convicted for off-Island crimes. Sheriff Michael A. McCormack said the facility averages about four inmates from off-Island. Yesterday morning, 28 inmates were housed at the jail. Several, including Mr. al-Saud, were from off-Island.
Over the years, off-Island criminals housed at the jail have included Matthew Stuart, who pleaded guilty to concealing evidence in the 1989 Boston murder of Carol DiMaiti Stuart, and Marc Jean Berruet, a gourmet chef at the Chanticleer Inn on Nantucket, sentenced to five years in 1997 for cocaine trafficking.
Mr. McCormack said he decided to go along with the request from the prince's defense attorneys because he believes Mr. al-Saud would be at risk in a larger facility because of the prince's Middle Eastern descent. No quid pro quo entered into his decision, he said.
The sheriff usually gets about one request a month for a prisoner to be incarcerated at the Vineyard jail. He said the requests come most often from inmates with Island ties who are being housed at other jails, and who want to come to the Island to serve their time near their families.
More rare is a request that comes through the state legal system, such as the recent al-Saud plea agreement.
Those two reasons - risk to an inmate, or the desire to be closer to Island family members - essentially account for transfer requests to the Dukes house of correction, the sheriff said.
Mr. McCormack said he has the right to refuse to bring in any off-Island inmate. Before any such inmates are moved to the jail, the sheriff's staff conducts a background check on the prisoner and the nature of their crime. The sheriff said he would not authorize the transfer of violent criminals to the jail.
But the sheriff also said other facilities can help him. The Plymouth County correctional facility recently agreed to take an especially disruptive felon who was convicted on the Vineyard. And because of the lack of separate facilities at the jail for female inmates, they routinely are transferred off-Island.
"There are times when we can help the system," Mr. McCormack said. "There are times when the system can help us."
The Vineyard jail does not receive revenue from other jurisdictions for housing prisoners convicted in those jurisdictions, Mr. McCormack said.
The sheriff said he is familiar with the characterizations of the Vineyard jail, where inmates take life skills and cooking courses, as a relatively posh facility.
" ‘It's cushy, it's like an inn,' " the sheriff quipped. "But what's most precious to Americans is their freedom: what you eat, when you go to bed, who you associate with. All those things are taken away from you, whether you're in Berkshire, Suffolk or Dukes," he said. "The punishment is the loss of freedom."
Mr. McCormack also said the courses offered inside the jail give inmates a better chance against a return stay.
The sheriff has been working with the airport and county commissions toward the development of a new jail on airport land. "We're trying to get some design money from the state," he said.
Driving the project, he said, is the age of the current jail, which dates from 1873; poor and unsafe conditions inside the jail related to its age; and its location in downtown Edgartown, which poses more of a threat to the community than a more remote location.
Mr. McCormack said the specific number of beds in the new jail has yet to be determined, but that the housing of off-Island prisoners will not play a role in determining the size of the jail.
Meanwhile, Mr. al-Saud might have less freedom on the horizon than some of his fellow inmates in Edgartown. Mr. McCormack said federal immigration officials have filed a detainer on the Saudi prince, meaning he will be released into their custody when he completes his sentence at the Vineyard jail.