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Sheriff Tompkins touts progress, endorsements as he faces first election

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Sheriff Tompkins touts progress, endorsements as he faces first election
Sheriff Steve Tompkins

Twelve years ago when Steve Tompkins began working in the Suffolk County Sheriff’s department, there was nowhere to go but up.

His then boss, former Sheriff Andrea Cabral, was working to restore confidence in a system that was dogged by scandal and abuse – a $5 million lawsuit from a woman who was illegally strip searched by guards and a ring of corrupt guards who allegedly brought contraband into the Suffolk County Jail and bedded with female inmates.

“We had to DNA-check four officers to see which one got a female prisoner pregnant,” Tompkins recalls. “We had some work to do when we got there.”

As Cabral’s director of communications, and later as chief of external affairs, Tompkins was often the public face of the department during challenging times.

Tompkins’ tenacity and people skills earned him the respect of local elected officials, many of whom have endorsed his campaign for the Sheriff’s office, to which he was appointed in 2013, after Cabral left to become Secretary of Public Safety under the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick.

And if endorsements are any indication, Tompkins has also earned the respect of the guards who now work for him, garnering the first-ever endorsement of a Suffolk County Sheriff by the Jail Officers and Employees Association of Suffolk County.

“Our relationship with the officers has gotten remarkably better,” he commented.

Tompkins says his 12 years in the sheriff’s office helped him earn the trust of the corrections officers.

“When I became sheriff, I was still Steve Tompkins,” he said. “I knew a lot of the issues [the corrections officers] were working to address.”

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s department oversees the South Bay House of Correction, the large prison near the Massachusetts Avenue exit to the Southeast Expressway and the Nashua Street Jail, near the Museum of Science. Prisoners in South Bay serve sentences of up to two-and-a-half years. The Nashua Street jail houses detainees awaiting trial. There are more than 1,800 inmates in the system and 1,000 employees, three-quarters of them corrections officers.

Tompkins says he has focused on five areas during his tenure as sheriff: the care, custody and control of detainees; education programs for inmates and the community at large; anti-violence initiatives; resources for addiction and mental health for inmates and re-entry programs to prepare inmates for life after incarceration.

On the last point, Tompkins notes the average cost of $46,000 a year it takes to house inmates in Massachusetts and the 46 percent recidivism rate that ensures that the state’s jails and prisons remain filled.

“People need employment, housing and health care when they leave our facilities,” he said. “In the absence of those three things, it’s really difficult.”

On the education front, the South Bay House of Corrections offers inmates a GED program and vocational training in areas including carpentry, landscaping and printing. Tompkins says he’s looking to expand the trainings into areas like culinary arts, hospitality services and urban farming.

“What we’re looking at is vocations where you have a skill and are employable,” he said.

Other changes Tompkins is working on include converting an underutilized wing of the South Bay prison in to a central lock-up facility, where police can bring prisoners for booking and processing.

Currently, police officers book suspects at district headquarters before bringing suspects to the Nashua Street Jail. Tompkins says his corrections officers are better trained to take care of suspects.

“Our officers can do court runs, hospital runs,” Tompkins said. “As far as care, holding and control, that’s what we do.

Tompkins has met with police chiefs from the towns in Suffolk County — Boston, Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop — and says they’re supportive.

This year, as he runs for his first-ever election to the sheriff’s office, Tompkins faces three opponents. On the plus side, his most visible opponent, Doug Bennett, has a demonstrated aptitude for placing his hand-lettered green and white signs on chain link fences throughout Suffolk County, but apparently little ability to raise money. Bennett had just $1,365 in his campaign account at his most recent filing with the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Another opponent, Hasan Smith, had just $224 in his account. Tompkins had $31,783.

Tompkins may also benefit from the lion’s share of endorsements, including city councilors Tito Jackson and Frank Baker, and state senators Linda Dorcena Forry and Sal DiDomenico.

“Steve has had a pinpoint focus on re-entry and how we stop the revolving door of people coming out of the Suffolk County House of Corrections and coming back in,” Jackson said. “I think he’s done a stellar job and has earned an opportunity to continue in his role as Sheriff.”

Tompkins says he looks forward to continuing to serve as Sheriff. The greatest benefit to the job, he says, is the satisfaction of seeing people turn their lives around.

“You really have the opportunity to help people change their lives,” he said. “I bump into people who are out. They have a job. They’re back with their families. It’s cool. I really dig that.”