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

Jeremy C. Fox
Sheriff Cabral runs on record of reform in re-election bid
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. (Photo: Ernesto Arroyo)

Author: Jeremy C. FoxSheriff 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.”

To be sure, the department still faces challenges. The House of Correction, designed to hold 900 inmates, regularly holds between 1,700 and 1,800 in just 674 cells, and the number of inmates and pre-trial detainees continues to grow — more than 5 percent in the past five years. Over that same period, the department has consistently been underfunded, according to its report.  

And Cabral the reformer has faced controversies of her own. In 2003, she banned nurse Sheila J. Porter from working at the House of Correction because Porter had reported alleged prisoner abuse to the FBI but not the sheriff’s department. Then-U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan launched a grand jury investigation into Cabral’s actions that lasted for nearly two years and made headlines just weeks before she faced her first election.

In the end, Sullivan could prove no wrongdoing. Cabral maintains that the investigation was “an appalling abuse of prosecutorial discretion” that grew out Sullivan’s attempts to coerce her into running the department in ways that were advantageous to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“Clearly [Sullivan’s] … inappropriate use of a federal grand jury because he was angry that I wouldn’t do things he wanted me to do was completely inappropriate and indefensible, I don’t care what he says,” Cabral told the Banner.  

Still, a jury in a civil case found in Porter’s favor and ordered that Cabral pay $610,000 plus $275,437 of Porter’s legal fees, and last fall an appeals court upheld that award. Cabral said the department’s counsel has negotiated a settlement but did not have the details at hand.

Sullivan, now a partner at Ashcroft Sullivan, said it would be improper for him to comment or even confirm whether there had been a grand jury investigation, but he said that during his tenure as U.S. Attorney he never witnessed a grand jury being used improperly.

That controversy finally behind her, Cabral’s chances for re-election this fall look almost unassailable. Philanthropist Barbara Lee, who works to help elect women candidates for public office and was an early supporter, says she’s been impressed with the level of public support Cabral has received.

“I think people love Andrea,” Lee said. “I have been with her on the street when workmen in vans have rolled down their windows and yelled out, ‘Hello, Sheriff!’ She has this remarkable following of people from all over the city who love her and support her and believe in her work as a public servant.”

With no other major-party candidates, Cabral’s only opponent is a little-known independent candidate and former Suffolk County correctional officer named Hassan A. Smith.

Smith is compact but sturdily built, with an appearance and bearing that suggest a law enforcement or military background, and his manner in greeting both friends and strangers is warm and good-natured. He seems like the gentle young father next door, and to many, he is. But others know Smith as the man who killed Jeffrey Booker.

In 1988, when he was only 15, Smith admits that he shot and killed 21-year-old Booker in Roxbury. Smith was tried as a juvenile, found delinquent and spent two years in the Department of Youth Services. He was released to a foster home in Northampton, where he finished high school.

Smith says he has kept his nose clean since then and has gone on to speak many times to youth about the risks of getting caught up in the culture of violence. He has pursued his childhood ambition of working in law enforcement, going to work at the Sheriff’s Department in 1993 and then attempting to join the Boston Police Department in 1997, garnering national attention and widespread disapproval.

Smith, describing the shooting to a reporter for the first time, said he meant to hurt Booker, not kill him, “but at the time I wasn’t thinking of the severity of the shooting. One bullet hit him and it collapsed his lung.”

“That’s something that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life,” he continued. “And I can’t live it down, and I’m not trying to live it down, but just because I can’t live it down doesn’t mean I have to stay down. I refuse to stay down.”

Jeffrey Booker’s sister Anissa says she misses her brother today like she did the day he was killed. She remembers him as “funny, lovable, he tended to his family, his two kids. He was definitely the father any little boy would have needed or wanted in their life.”

Anissa Booker and her family don’t begrudge Smith the opportunity to work and provide for his own family, but they say law enforcement is the last place a man with his past should be. “Find another job,” she said. “With his attitude, that’s not the job for him.”

The Booker family is particularly upset because, they say, for many years, Smith made no attempt to even apologize. In a recent television appearance on the Fox News Channel, Smith did offer a public apology, but he refused to discuss the killing in any detail, and Anissa Booker doesn’t believe he was sincere.

And the murder of Jeffrey Booker isn’t the only serious charge levied against Smith. Documents obtained by the Banner through a public records request show that Smith was fired from the Sheriff’s Department after being accused of sexual harassment by three co-workers at the House of Correction: a civilian case worker, a nurse and even an investigator assigned to check out the nurse’s claims.

Smith says he was railroaded, that his superiors were looking for an excuse to fire him after he attempted to run against Sheriff Rouse in the 1998 election. But arbitrators upheld the conclusions of two separate investigations of harassment charges against Smith.

“In judging the credibility of Ms. [redacted] and Officer [redacted],” wrote arbitrator William J. McDonald, “it is significant to note that they have gained no material benefit by their allegations against Officer Smith. Nor can they expect any benefit in the future, because there is no indication that either one had the intention to file … a sexual harassment complaint with a governmental body or court.”

Despite his past, Smith believes he can win, but his chances seem slim. His campaign operates out of his Grove Hall apartment and had only $151 in the bank as of its last filing with the state elections commission.

Still, Cabral says she can’t take victory for granted, pointing out that U.S. Senate candidate Alvin Greene recently came out of nowhere to win the Democratic primary in South Carolina.

“You don’t take anything for granted, you ask for everyone’s vote, you make sure that your good work is out there and that people know, you make sure that you’re accessible for people to ask questions … and that is the way the process works,” she said. “I think you’d be pretty foolish to make any assumptions or ever get too comfortable in a political arena.”