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Sheriff Cabral runs on record of reform in re-election bid

Jeremy C. Fox | 6/29/2010, 10:13 p.m.
Sheriff Andrea Cabral is joined by (l to r) Chelsea City Councilor Calvin Brown, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley and state Rep. Martin Walsh at the campaign kick off for her re-election. Ernesto Arroyo

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Sheriff Andrea Cabral is joined by (l to r) Chelsea City Councilor Calvin Brown, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley and state Rep. Martin Walsh at the campaign kick off for her re-election.

When Andrea J. Cabral took over the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department in November 2002, it was an institution in chaos.

Cabral, a career prosecutor, was appointed by then-acting Gov. Jane Swift to complete the term of the previous sheriff, Richard Rouse, who had taken early retirement just weeks before a special commission released a report showing an agency riddled with unqualified patronage hires, guards who extorted or traded favors with inmates, sexual abuse of female inmates and beatings of men.

In an interview at the South Bay House of Correction last week, Cabral recalled that her early reform efforts had met with surprisingly little resistance. “I think the majority dealt with it very, very well,” she said, “but you always have a core group of people who are heavily invested in keeping things the way they are, either because they benefit personally or the system the way it exists just creates a higher comfort level for them to function.”

The department is a very different place now, according to a report released earlier this year. It uses a selective hiring process that includes a thorough background check; all staff are subject to annual reviews; and promotions are based on merit, with a written exam and an extensive review process.

Inmates are offered substance abuse treatment, literacy classes, English as a Second Language, a GED program, computer courses, vocational training, parenting classes and more.

Former Sheriff Rouse, who now teaches government as an adjunct professor at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, said he preferred not to comment on his tenure or on Sheriff Cabral’s performance out of respect for her. “I don’t want to be second-guessing — that job is hard enough,” Rouse said.

But those who know Cabral have given her high marks on her first full term in office.

Political consultant Joyce Ferriabough has known Cabral since they worked together on Eddie Jenkins’ 2002 campaign for Suffolk District Attorney and said Cabral has overcome the odds in reforming the department.

“The major thing is … she changed the system that many people felt she was not going to make it to first base with because it was just rolling with patronage and had so many different problems,” Ferriabough said. “She took hold of the tiger and tamed it, and there are programs there now that are national models.”

Cabral’s former boss Scott Harshbarger, who hired her when he was Middlesex County district attorney and then recruited her to the state attorney general’s office after he was elected to that post in 1990, had praise for Cabral as both a prosecutor and as sheriff.

“I think the record speaks for itself,” said Harsbarger, now in private practice at Proskauer Rose LLP. He particularly noted Cabral’s emphasis on preparing inmates for release and re-entry into the outside world.

“I mean, this is somebody who’s been willing to make tough decisions,” he said, “to continue on the path of effective reform of corrections, which means being tough but smart in terms of both making sure you do the job as a tough correctional official but also understand that all these folks are going to leave prison … and the question is whether they go out less dangerous than when they went in.”