Recently, a friend who attends our Quaker Meeting intermittently with her two children announced that she was considering running for county sheriff. Although I liked her very much and we always enjoyed having her children present, I must admit that I felt some confusion. As a non-Quaker friend said to me, “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard ‘Quaker’ and ‘sheriff’ in the same sentence before!
Virginia Leigh, known to us as Ginger, asked for a clearness committee, which resulted in her clarity to run against the incumbent sheriff, who had previously been a police chief. He certainly matched the image that I carried of a sheriff.
Our Meeting quickly came together to support her in this endeavor, which would culminate in the September primary election, as a primary race between Democrats. Her foundation for running was her background as a social worker and her conviction that “Sheriff’s work IS social work!” While supporting her, I learned that the Massachusetts ACLU had coincidentally just released a public education video, “Know Your Sheriff,” because, like me, few of us had any understanding of the sheriff’s job responsibilities.
Briefly, the sheriff’s job is NOT rounding up the bad guys or performing law enforcement; it’s overseeing our jails’ residents. Some are awaiting trial and some are serving their sentence. Many have addictions requiring treatment. Thus, the primary responsibility of our sheriff is overseeing these people and insuring their safety and and maintaining their health while they await hearings and trials or during transportation between locations.
During Ginger’s campaign, I learned of the high suicide rate among both jail personnel and residents, especially high for residents during the first two weeks of their confinement. Additionally, the recidivism rate has approached 50% during the incumbent’s six-year term. Only after Ginger announced her candidacy this year, has he introduced new programs to attempt reduction of this revolving door.
Having heard about the high cost of inmates’ telephone calls, I was shocked to learn that, not only does the sheriff’s department receive a percentage of those fees, the current sheriff of Essex County accepts substantial campaign donations from the current vendor, not recognizing the inherent conflict of interest.
Little by little, as I heard Ginger speak on multiple occasions to varied audiences, sometimes including her opponent and his supporters, I learned more about his history and hers. Evidently he has recently been the defendant in a case brought by the ACLU, after he refused to provide needed medication to an inmate. Also, little by little, I began to understand her byline: Sheriff’s work IS social work. The people incarcerated in our jails comprise a considerable percentage of the state’s mental health patients. They need — and deserve — proper care and consideration, from a social worker perspective. With that proper care, they increase their chances to become more useful members of society, to integrate successfully back into society, and to avoid returning to jail.
That perspective is purely humanitarian. What about the financial implications? The cost to us, citizens of Essex County, is about $77,000 per year per inmate. Therefore, for the 45% who return to jail within a year of their release, that cost continues, rather than is eliminated. If attention were given to recidivism deduction, the cost savings to us would be considerable.
As a sidebar, I learned from Ginger that Quakers were originally responsible for the idea of a penitentiary, based on the word, ‘penance.’ Originally, prisoners immediately faced their sentence, such as being executed or having a hand cut off. Quakers introduced the idea of each person being worthy of redemption, of having a chance to learn better behavior. Unfortunately, as Ginger pointed out, Quakers were also responsible for introducing solitary confinement to the prison system.
When Ginger announced that before the election, she would walk across the county, about 27 miles, our Meeting planned to hold a Meeting for Worship midway, followed by providing lunch for the walkers before they continued on their way. We worked out the timing to accommodate a press conference in front of the sheriff’s headquarters, following Worship and prior to the picnic lunch. Worship was held beside a pond on a beautiful Sunday morning with a slight breeze.
The night before the election, Ginger invited a dozen of us to her home for Worship. We were all filled with anticipation, not really having any idea what outcome to expect. Ginger continued to display the calmness that had been her trademark throughout the campaign, then expressed her appreciation for our support, before sharing her personal desire to accept the next day’s results with continued calmness.
On election night, many of us gathered with her and welcomed the early results: the race was close, with many North Shore communities, including Beverly and Gloucester, where several Friends live, giving Ginger a majority of their votes. It remained close overall, with Virginia holding almost as many as the incumbent, until 11:00 pm. Then, with only half the ballots counted, I left for home. The next morning, as the remaining ballots were counted, the incumbent sheriff maintained an edge, with 53% of the votes. Virginia had lost. 🙁
Of course, I am hugely disappointed; nevertheless, I stand in awe of Virginia’s courage, determination, and steady stamina. Additionally, seeing that she came so close to winning, despite being an unknown, unconventional, and first-time candidate, makes me recognize that her message reached many people and may affect future actions in our jails.