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Inside the Barnstable County jail: What changes are on the way?

Male inmates in C Pod at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility participate in the voluntary Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) program, also known as the Shock Unit, a military-style therapeutic program. Sheriff Donna Buckley, right foreground, observes from a control room.
Jennette Barnes
Male inmates in C Pod at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility participate in the voluntary Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) program, also known as the Shock Unit, a military-style therapeutic program. Sheriff Donna Buckley, right foreground, observes from a control room.

Patrick Flanary: Both Barnstable and Bristol counties have new sheriffs for the first time in decades. There’s also a political shift underway, as both sheriffs are Democrats. CAI reporter Jennette Barnes toured the Barnstable County Correctional Facility with Sheriff Donna Buckley. Jennette joins us now on Morning Edition to talk about what she saw and how things appear to be changing there. Jennette, welcome.

Jennette Barnes: Hi, Patrick.

Patrick Flanary: Let’s start with some of the basics about this facility. Where is it, and who’s housed there?

Jennette Barnes: Sure. So this jail is relatively new. It opened in 2004, and it’s within the boundary of Joint Base Cape Cod, but the access is outside the military gates. The inmates here are all sentenced to 2½ years or less, per conviction. And sentences to county jail are for misdemeanors. A felony would land you in state prison. That’s why we call county inmates “inmates” and not “prisoners,” to draw the distinction between prison and jail.

Patrick Flanary: Right, and they are innocent until proven guilty in court. We know that not everyone who’s in county jail has been convicted of a crime yet. Some of them are being held there ahead of trial, right?

Jennette Barnes: Right, and that’s an important point, because the number of people who are in the county jail awaiting trial is now larger than the sentenced population. Sheriff Buckley calls this being “upside down” because she says pre-trial detention is not the main thing the jail was built to do. And it makes it harder to do programs to prevent recidivism if the inmates are there on a very transient basis. Also, the overall population of the jail has dropped as well. It’s built for 588 inmates, but on the day I visited it only had 184. Let’s take a listen to some of what Sheriff Buckley had to say about the reasons the jail population is down.

Sheriff Donna Buckley: We can instantly point to COVID, but that's not the only factor. But when COVID hit, all of a sudden, the $50 bails, the hundred-dollar bails, the small bail — those went away. So they went back to the court and the court released people on their own recognizance. But then you add to that the fact that we've had significant bail reform. There's significant levels at pretrial and pre-detention diversion. So not only is our population down, but the numbers of cases going through the courts are down.

Patrick Flanary: OK. Jennette, I’m trying to envision you walking inside this facility. What exactly did you see? The cell blocks — they’re called pods. What are those like?

Jennette Barnes: Well, the cells themselves are built for two people, but they generally only have one person in each cell now. The cell block, or pod as you said, can be one or two floors. One I saw had 16 cells. Another had 24, so they’re not all the same. But the cells face into a common area that has tables. That’s where meals were served prior to COVID. Right now they’re still doing in-cell meals, which was the COVID protocol, so inmates come get their meals in the common area but then take them back to their cells. They are allowed to be in the common area at numerous other times. Their recreation time, though, is indoors, but is different from what I’ve seen in Bristol County. But each pod has what’s called a “rec deck,” which is a room with a basketball hoop and pull-up bars. It does have fresh air ventilation, though.

Patrick Flanary: This might surprise some people listening. The inmates have access to tablets, and they can also make phone calls from those, right?

Jennette Barnes: Yes, that’s right, but the tablets don’t have standard Internet access. They have phone capabilities and instant messaging that they can use to communicate with families. They also have some free books and educational content. And then inmates can also pay to add content, like more books and movies. They pay for that with their commissary account, which typically is funded by their families.

Patrick Flanary: Tell us about the different units and how the inmates are separated.

Jennette Barnes: Sure. This is interesting, because it gives you some insight into what goes on at the jail. For example, one pod is the special management unit, which is for inmates who want to be voluntarily separated from the general population. This can be if they have enemies in the jail that they’ve disclosed, or they’re in fear for some other reason. All of the women are in one pod that’s separate. And because the numbers are so low, they’re allowed to mix sentenced and pre-trial women in the same pod, which is not allowed in the general male population. There are two related to discipline. The first is called “administrative segregation,” where they go to wait for a hearing if they’ve been written up for a rule violation. And the second is the actual disciplinary unit where they go if they were held responsible at the hearing. And then another pod that’s interesting is nicknamed the Shock Unit. It’s all men, and it’s the substance abuse treatment program that operates with kind of a military style to it. Here’s the assistant superintendent of the jail, Peter Monteiro, describing how that works.

Assistant Superintendent Peter Monteiro: They’re not allowed to swear in here — use curse language. They are expected to stand at attention every morning when they come out. They have a roll call prior to coming out for the count. … Everything is “Yes, sir. No, sir.” When you come into the unit, they will yell, “Officer on deck. Guest on deck.” They will stand at attention until you say, “At ease,” and then we move forward.

Patrick Flanary: Jennette, that almost sounds more like boot camp. It’s a discipline I didn’t expect to learn about this morning.

Jennette Barnes: Yes, and they can get thrown out of the program if they break the rules. But they do get some perks. They can wear jeans instead of the regular uniform, and the sheriff says being in this program is viewed as an advantage when the inmate is considered for release.

Patrick Flanary: Are women and men housed here?

Jennette Barnes: No, actually. They are all men. Everything is separated by gender in the jail. So in this substance treatment unit, it is all men. Mr. Monteiro said that because of a combination of the low female population and COVID, the women’s program was closed. And that’s something I’d like to follow up on and find out how women can access substance recovery programs, too.

Patrick Flanary: And we know that Sheriff Buckley had campaigned on major change and reform there. What do the educational programs at the jail look like right now?

Jennette Barnes: The biggest thing they offer right now is a high school equivalency, and they have four students graduating this month. They also offer courses like “critical thinking in the workplace,” and communication skills, things like that. But a lot of things have been lost over the last several years for a variety of reasons — partly the pandemic, but partly because of a staff reduction, the sheriff said. They used to have college courses through Cape Cod Community College, but that stopped, and the sheriff wants to bring that back this fall. They also used to have an art program. They had visits to a library room, and they employed a staff librarian. Now there’s no librarian and inmates have to select from books that are brought up to the units on carts. Sheriff Buckley says she wants to look at all the programs holistically, to see what would benefit inmates the most when they’re on the inside, and then how they can get connected to other programs on the outside, because so many of them are in the jail for less than six months.

Patrick Flanary: Jennette Barnes, it’s great to have you giving us a close-up look at the jail. I certainly don’t want to see the inside of that jail if I can help it. And we’ll look forward to having you back to see how things are progressing with it.

Jennette Barnes: Alright. Thank you so much, Patrick.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.