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Jail making the grade with accreditation team

By John Laidler, Globe Correspondent, 8/3/2003

nmates at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Middleton might be consoled to know they are, at least in the view of prison and jail experts, in a quality institution.

Next month, the combined house of correction for convicted offenders and jail for defendants awaiting trial is expected to be accredited by a national organization, the Commission on Accreditation for Corrections.

While not required to be accredited, facilities that achieve the status are recognized to be operating in a way that meets national standards.

Of approximately 3,200 county correctional facilities across the country, only 160 have achieved accreditation, according to Joe Weedon, a spokesman for the American Correctional Association, a nonprofit trade association of which the commission is an independent affiliate. In Massachusetts, there are accredited county correctional facilities in Hampshire, Norfolk, Plymouth, and Suffolk counties.

Weedon said achieving accreditation can be helpful to institutions when applying for state and federal grants, and in defending against lawsuits.

While not official, the accreditation of the Essex County facility is considered all but certain, based on the results of a three-day audit conducted in April, Weedon said.

The accreditation team reported that the 12-year-old medium security facility operated by the office of Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr. met 100 percent of 61 required standards and 96 percent of 284 standards considered ''non mandatory.'' To achieve accreditation, a facility must meet 100 percent of the former and 90 percent of the latter.

While the sheriff continues to be elected at the county level, the department has been a state entity since the elimination of Essex County government in 1999.

In its report, the three-member team praised the operation of the facility in areas such as the efficiency of the inmate booking process, the cleanliness of the kitchen area, the access inmates have to programs and recreation, and the training provided to staff.

Chairing the team was Joseph McCarthy, jail administrator for the Davidson County Sheriff's Office Correctional Work Center in Nashville.

''It's a very impressive facility,'' McCarthy said during a telephone interview from Tennessee last week. ''I was impressed with the caliber of staff they have. I was impressed with the number of relevant programs they have. I was impressed with the sanitation of the facility, and impressed with the upper leadership.'' The April 28-30 audit came on the heels of the suspension without pay of six correctional officers at the facility for a March 30 incident in which they handcuffed a mentally handicapped inmate and repeatedly shoved cake in his face. After an investigation, Cousins fired one of the officers and extended the suspensions of the five others for periods ranging from five weeks to 10 months.

Paul Fleming, a spokesman for Cousins, said the sheriff's staff informed the accreditation committee of the incident.

He said the committee members were ''cognizant of the fact that situations like that happen in jails, but what the administration does to make sure it doesn't happen again is important. They were extremely pleased with the disciplinary actions that Sheriff Cousins took with the officers involved.''

McCarthy, who confirmed that his committee was told of the incident, said, ''You can probably have the best training in the world and the best facility in the world, but when it comes down to human behavior, it is awfully difficult to predict. What you do in those situations is you have to see what you need to correct.''

The pending accreditation fulfills a goal set by Cousins, a Newburyport Republican, when he first became sheriff seven years ago.

At the time, the department was reeling from a federal corruption probe that resulted in then-sheriff Charles Reardon pleading guilty and being sentenced to prison. Several of his top aides also pleaded guilty.

When he first arrived at the job, Cousins said ''policies and procedures were nonexistent, employee work rules were nonexistent, job descriptions were nonexistent. . . . We did not have a superintendent'' at the Middleton facility. ''Lawsuits were very commonplace in the late '80s to the early '90s.''

Cousins, who was appointed by Governor William Weld to the vacant sheriff's position in 1996 and elected to it in 1998, said it took several years to make the changes that would enable the department to begin the accreditation process. It then took about two years to prepare for the audit, an effort that was led by a committee he appointed.

''It's a nice feeling of pride,'' Cousins said of achieving accreditation. ''It's a nice feeling of accomplishment for our staff.''

The commission is due to take up the accreditation of the facility at its Aug. 8-10 meeting in Nashville, according to Weedon.

At the meeting, both the commission and the sheriff's office will have the chance to raise issues they choose from the audit. (The sheriff's office plans to appeal several deficiencies cited in the ''non mandatory'' section of the audit, a move that if successful could elevate its score.)

If, as expected, the commission votes to accredit the facility, the award will be formally presented at an Aug. 11 commission lunch in Nashville which Cousins and other department officials plan to attend.

John B. Russell, assistant superintendent of the Essex County Correctional Facility and a member of the sheriff's accreditation committee, said the award reflects positive changes Cousins has brought to the department.

''Now there is accountability that everyone is held to, to make sure everyone meets our policies and procedures,'' said Russell, a 22-year veteran of the department. ''It's accountability, professionalism. We didn't see that back years ago.''

This story ran on page 1 of the Globe North section on 8/3/2003.

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It was nice to see this article in the papers. Corrections is usually a forgotten business, unless we screw up. We were definatley up to par when the accreditation evaluators came around. The way we got there was a bit brisk and tough on line staff, but we got it done, and I guess that's what matters in the end? maybe? hmm...I digress.
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