The Repurposing of the American Jail


Jails and prisons are becoming substance-abuse treatment facilities—even for those who haven’t been accused of a crime.

November 19, 2019
The Atlantic
Jessica Pishko

…correctional officials defend jail- and prison-based treatment, even in the face of controversy. Last year, Sheriff Nick Cocchi of Hampden County, Massachusetts, announced that a wing of the county jail would be reserved for Section 35 detainees. These lockups, renamed “treatment centers,” are housed inside the main jail and provide access to rehabilitative programs. But the approximately 100 people in the program are kept separate from regular jail inmates and, according to Cocchi’s office, have more freedom to move about the facility.

Judges and others have praised Cocchi’s program in Hampden County, particularly for its role helping those in rural communities where services are scarce. In addition to touting the health benefits of the program, Cocchi has repeatedly noted, as an advantage, that he has filled unused jail beds. People who enter the program stay an average of 48 days, longer than patients can stay in private facilities. And unlike in other treatment programs, those in Cocchi’s program receive assistance reintegrating into society and resolving any open arrest warrants or criminal charges. Robert Rizzuto, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said, “Unlike other facilities, we help people through each stage of the recovery process. We don’t want to leave someone to figure things out on their own.” The state has added $1 million to the program’s budget for the next fiscal year, Rizzuto said.

But public-health experts and advocates largely oppose programs such as Cocchi’s. Bonnie Tenneriello, a staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts who has worked on the Section 35 lawsuit for years, told me that as prison and jail populations dwindle, officials may increasingly repurpose the space.

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