Watch group says political donations to sheriffs cause problems for inmates

Common Cause, a national watchdog that has long campaigned to deprive politics of corporate influence, says special interest money pouring into the coffers of elected sheriffs across the country represents a conflict of interest and endangers detainees.

The findings are contained in a report released Tuesday titled “The Jailer Paid: How Sheriff Campaign Dollars Shaping Mass Incarceration. The study is national in scope but is particularly targeted at Massachusetts, where elected sheriffs received $ 2.6 million in what Common Cause described as “donations in ethical conflict.”

The report was co-authored by Communities for Sheriff Accountability, a coalition of prison reform advocates and researchers.

Construction, food service, prison health and other businesses specific to incarceration are receiving assistance in electing certain sheriffs, said researcher Kesha Morris Desir, head of the census and census project. mass incarceration at Common Cause.

Researchers filed for public registration of a fraction of the nation’s more than 3,000 sheriffs and combed campaign finance data from 11 states to draw their conclusions. Most sheriff’s departments declined to comment or provide information. Of those who did – about 3% of the total number of sheriffs in the United States – three areas stood out.

“Maryland, Orange County and Massachusetts were among the top offenders for receiving ethically conflicting donations, with Massachusetts the highest,” said Morris Desir.

According to the report: “Massachusetts sheriffs received up to $ 2,686,129 in potentially conflicting donations from just 13 sheriff campaigns, with sheriffs in these five counties being the primary beneficiaries: Suffolk County, $ 319,002; Bristol County, $ 324,870; Hampden County, $ 396,604; County of Worcester, $ 504,516; and Plymouth County, $ 738,008.

GBH contacted Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who said he would respond to the report after being given the opportunity to read it.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgeson said he could not speak for others in the Commonwealth, but said criticism of sheriffs elected for accepting campaign dollars from corporate donors was “ridiculous” . He argued that campaign donations to sheriffs were no more controversial than corporate donations to members of Congress.

“Does this mean that drug companies that donate to a particular congressman are suggesting that congressman is involved in some kind of matching?” He asked rhetorically.

Hodgeson spokesman Jonathan Darling said in a statement to GBH News: “The report does not allege any actual violation of Massachusetts campaign finance laws. The report is but the opinion of a political organization thousands of miles from Bristol County whose definition of “conflict of interest” is different from the current law. This is probably the first of many political attacks to be launched against Sheriff Hodgson and the other sheriffs in Mass. who are running for re-election this year.

At a press conference on Zoom, the study’s authors admitted that there was nothing illegal about corporate donations to sheriffs campaigns, but argued that accepting donations of the same companies that build prisons, feed and house inmates, and look after their medical needs was an inherent conflict of interest.

The authors cite the more than 30 people who have died in Bristol County Jail since the mid-2000s due to substance withdrawal, suicide and other causes. Common Cause said those people and those currently in prison had not received adequate health care, accusing a major donor to Hodgeson’s campaign.

Hodgeson is reprimanded in the report for accepting more than $ 12,000 in donations from CPS Health Care, the prison’s medical contractor.

“Well, first of all, this company has exceeded expectations with us,” said Hodgeson of the CPS Health Care defense. “They bought the equipment that we needed that helps us improve our medical unit. They did things way beyond what they were otherwise required to do. And they are very conscientious.

Hodgeson also took issue with the amount of money he received in campaign funding from CPS Health Care. “I think over the course of, I don’t know, eight years, nine years, [they] donated a total of $ 3,250 to my campaign. I mean, it’s been eight years.

Common Cause argues that regardless of the increases, large or small, private companies have an undue influence on how prisons are run and who benefit from them. This impact is not insignificant, said Morris Desir: “CPS Healthcare, which is recognized as one of the worst prison and prison health care companies in the country, has spent around $ 20,000 on sheriff campaigns. in Massachusetts. It paid off about 500 times. because from 2012 to 2021, they received around $ 10 million.

Common Cause and Communities for Sheriff Accountability said “ethically conflicting donations” to sheriffs contributed to the mass incarceration system.

“Sheriffs have this tremendous power and they use it disproportionately to overincarcerate blacks and Latinos,” said Max Rose, one of the study’s authors. “Private sector contributions really influence how they do it. “

The researchers recommend that Massachusetts and other states take a cue from New York and Connecticut, which impose strict guidelines on campaign donations to limit “special interest” matching deals.