BCSSW Alumnus Develops and Leads a ‘National Model for Rehabilitating Inmates’

BCSSW alumnus Sheriff Michael Ashe

BCSSW alumnus Sheriff Michael Ashe

As Sheriff of Hampden County, Massachusetts, BCSSW alumnus Michael Ashe has spent the last 40-plus years innovating within prisons towards developing a better paradigm for a system that is more rehabilitative, and less punitive.  

This past month, Sheriff Ashe’s unique work was recognized by The Boston Globe’s Katie Johnston, who lauded the Hampden County Correctional System as “a national model for rehabilitating inmates.”

“Pioneered by social worker-turned-county sheriff Michael Ashe,” Johnston wrote, “the program focuses on preparing inmates to join the workforce, often for the first time, while addressing mental illness, substance abuse, and other needs. Governor Charlie Baker recently proposed spending $1 million to expand the Western Massachusetts re-entry model statewide.” 

Sheriff Ashe recently sat down with Innovate to discuss his time at BC, why a social worker makes for a good sheriff, and how the Hampden County Correctional System seeks to prepare inmates for life after prison.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today Sheriff Ashe.

Michael Ashe: It’s my pleasure. I have very warm memories of my time at Boston College. During my time there, BC was still located in Downtown Boston at 126 Newbury Street, and Father John Driscoll was the dean. I fondly remember a course that I took with Ruth Butler on the healthy child that would become a key part of my life.

At that time, I was part of a thesis group that studied battered child syndrome, and I had the opportunity to work with a remarkable, devoted caseworker named Mary O’Donahue. I was also a new father at that time, and this experience had a profound impact on me. I had grown up in a healthy stable family, and we were largely sheltered from even issues like divorce. But during my studies at BC, I realized that there were many struggling children and families out there, and I wanted to be a change agent. O’Donahue provided a compassionate example to strive to follow.

Your first job out of graduate school, in partnership with your wife Barbara, was as the first house parents for the Downey Side Homes for Youth, an organization where you later served as assistant director. Tell us about this experience.

MA: If you remember, in the early 1970s, the social work professor Jerome Miller was deeply involved in reforming the juvenile correctional systems, and in particular, the institutionalization of young people. His whole concept as an antidote to the existing negative civil service, custodial-driven facilities was to establish group homes.

At that time, I was lucky enough to hear Father Paul Engel, an idealistic and innovative Franciscan who was assistant chaplain at the Downtown Business Chapel of St. Francis, present on Miller’s vision for group homes at the Division of Child Guardianship in Springfield, and I immediately knew that I wanted to be a part of this solution. So I spoke with Father Engel about what we, together, could do in Springfield, knowing that this kind of program would require strong, dedicated house parents for the youth. Barbara and I signed up for this role, and Downey Side was born.

You remained with Downey Side for six years, then, in 1974, you ran for Sheriff of Hampden County. Why did you, a social worker with no background in criminal justice, decide to run for this important position in law enforcement?

Sheriff Ashe

Sheriff Ashe pictured in 1974, during his first campaign for office.

MA: At that time, there seemed to be a need for someone to take control of a difficult situation. My predecessor had quite a few issues – from the administrative to the personal. People were escaping the prison on a regular basis; there were regular protests in the media about the lack of professional care being offered at the jail.

I had a group of friends who approached me about entering the sheriff’s race, and at first, I remember feeling scared. As you mentioned, I had no background in criminal justice or in politics, and I would be called to speak publicly for the first time in my life on critical issues. But these were issues I understood, thanks to my background in social work and my time at Downey Side, and with the support of my brother Jay, also a BCSSW graduate who has worked at my side for my entire tenure as sheriff, I decided to run.

We believed that there was a real need to change the culture of the prison in Hampden County, away from punishment and towards rehabilitation, and we believed we had the backgrounds and the tools to make that happen. We’ve been hard at work to perfect our corrections system ever since.

This year marks your last, and 42nd year as sheriff; you’ve won re-election every six years since your first campaign in 1974. Tell us about some of your major accomplishments, in your own words.

MA: Since we took over leadership of the jail, we’ve aspired to move away from the historical custodial-minded warehousing of inmates that had been (and still is largely today) the norm for county jails in America.

I remember our first week, there was a riot and the jail went into lock down. As I walked the halls in front of the cells, I could see the whites of the inmates knuckles as they grasped the prison bars, clanging their coffee cups against the cell doors. I knew then we had a long way to go.

It’s not been easy, but we’ve made progress, and this starts with our staff. Our jail is run by the concept of direct supervision, under the motto of “engage, interact, communicate.” We’ve focused on hiring people that care, that want to serve, and that want to inspire and motivate inmates.

We have 95 full-time staffers with master’s degrees; many of these are MSW’s. All of our staffers are required to complete an eight-week academy prior to beginning work at the jail, towards developing teams that have multiple skills. During this period, social workers are trained in security, and security officers are trained in human services. Often, in correctional facilities, there’s tension between those in human services and those in security. Not in our facility. Our social workers are caseworkers in uniform.

Most importantly, our team is devoted to providing opportunities to prepare inmates for success once they are released. It’s a steep journey – at the time of arrest, our inmates average only a 7th– 8th grade education and 93 percent lack any kind of marketable skill. We seek to offer remedial education, GED, and vocational training. We also have partnerships with local community colleges for various training programs such as culinary arts. Since 1975, close to 4,500 inmates have achieved their GED here. I’m very proud of this statistic.

Tell us more about how inmates are able to achieve such successes.  

MA: The life of our facility revolves around a ’40-hour work week’, whereby inmates are engaged in educational and substance abuse programs, as well as work, for that amount of time. Actually, it’s probably more like 46-47 hours per week for us. In addition to the aforementioned educational and counseling opportunities, inmates can train and work in carpentry, graphics, entrepreneurship; we also run a restaurant and offer catering services.

But most importantly, we want our inmates to be successful when they return to the community. For this reason, our programs are also very much tied to aftercare, and we seek to maximize community resources – this is an idea that I learned at Boston College.

Too often, jails and prisons have been thought of as fortresses in the woods, but I’ve sought to help the community rethink this image. We are your neighbors, and our inmates will be a part of the greater community when they are released. So let’s forge positive partnerships. We work directly with the Parks Department, community centers, Habitat for Humanity, and the Department of Public Works, to name just a few of our 300-plus partners who are helping to employ those looking for a second chance at life.

Since 2008, we’ve reduced the population of the facility by 35 percent. I’m proud of this number. If you can help prepare individuals for opportunities to succeed, there’s less chance they’ll come back. I’m hopeful that my successor can even further reduce the size of our population of inmates to this end.

Learn more about Sheriff Ashe’s remarkable career, and his impact on corrections in America, in this article from The Boston Globe.

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