New Sheriff In Town

Worcester Magazine
By Jeremy Shulkin

At the end of April of this year, first-term Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis celebrated his 100th day in office with a release touting his accomplishments in a time span of less than four months. Ticking off a list of Evangelidis’ reforms at the House of Correction in West Boylston, such as “remov[ing] politics from the department,” changing hiring standards, emphasizing community-service work and drug-prevention programs in schools, the release ends with Evangelidis saying, “I am grateful to have been given this extraordinary opportunity. I look forward to getting up and going to work every day and doing what I can to make our community safer.”

That quote could be inserted into any one of Evangelidis’ aspects of his professional career, and it would fit right in. Anyone who knows Evangelidis from his four terms as a Republican state representative from Holden, or his previous time as a prosecutor in Dade County, Fla., and Suffolk County, Mass., understands the 50-year-old’s zeal for public service.

But overseeing a jail that’s only about 100 inmates short of a 1,251-population cap agreed upon by the U.S. Department of Justice and Worcester House of Corrections (the jail was originally built to house 750 prisoners) and employs 600, has Evangelidis taking a large leap away from his last job.

State representatives don’t deliver bad news, but sheriffs do, says Guy Glodis, Worcester’s former sheriff who left office last year to pursue a failed bid for state auditor. Glodis made a similar jump from state senator to sheriff in 2004.

“It’s a difficult job. You can’t make everybody happy all the time,” says Glodis. “People are going to hold Lew accountable up there for both the good and bad.”

While the state’s county-jail system falls under the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Office of Public Safety, jails still remain political institutions with elected sheriffs holding six-year terms. In the case of the last election where Glodis, a Democrat, departed, and 27-year jail employee Scot Bove eventually lost in a bitter primary to former Massachusetts state police colonel Tom Foley for that party’s nomination, political speculation fuels every motive.

That sort of partisan fighting shouldn’t be anything new to a Beacon Hill veteran, but a sheriff’s impact – measured in budget allocations and recidivism numbers – is arguably easier to quantify than a state representative’s, especially one from the minority party representing a suburban district.

So for the first six months of Evangelidis’ time as head of the jail, political bickering and hiring and firings have made the headlines. Evangelidis wants to talk about the reforms he’s made over the past six months so he’s more frustrated than anyone that the conversation always seems to come back to politics.

Yet with the number of previous admin defectors and hirees with familiar faces from within the Evangelidis campaign, it’s no stretch to see why he’s been bogged down.

THE MISSION

“It’s the crimes that are never committed by how we judge our success,” Evangelidis offers from behind his desk in the Worcester County House of Corrections, located in one room of a wing off to the side of jail’s entrance just before the metal detectors and barred doors that separate the prison population from the waiting area. “The ultimate goal is for us to not get people in here in the first place.”

While it’s the right idea, it’s a dubious way for someone in government to think: funding relies on numbers and if someone uses an argument that can’t be quantified, then how does the state know how much money to give?

He hopes that other cost-saving measures he’s taken and crime-deterrent programs he’s championed fill that hole.

Evangelidis has worked with the Worcester Superior Court to provide videoconferencing for bail hearings and other applicable court proceedings starting this month, which will cut down on the transportation costs of bringing inmates back and forth between the jail and the courthouse. He’s asked state auditor Suzanne Bump for a full review of his department, the results of which are expected before the end of the summer. Evangelidis consolidated the human resources director and chief financial offi cer positions into the director of administration and finance position, while eliminating community-relations positions and executive assistants, and changing the legal-counsel contract inherited by the Glodis administration – personnel moves which he estimates will save the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office $400,000 per year.

In sticking with the mission, though, Evangelidis specifically touts three of his programs that he believes will cut down on recidivism and reduce the number of criminal offenders in the county.

Called the Face2Face program, the sheriff’s department uses kids’ high-regard for their appearance to keep them off drugs. Students see “before” and “after” pictures of inmates arrested for drug use and how their faces and bodies have changed for the worse overtime.

“Look at this stuff; she wanted to be a model,” Evangelidis says, pointing to a “before” picture of a pretty young blond. Her “after” photo shows a gaunt, sickly woman with bad skin and thinned hair.

The program has a two-fold approach: keeping kids off of drugs now will keep the prison population down in the future.

“Every [prisoner] will tell you but for drugs and alcohol they wouldn’t be in here,” says the sheriff.

An extension to the program allows sheriff department employees to digitally alter photos of students to show what they would look like after years of drug abuse, but “kids really like it when we do teachers and principals,” he admits.

Next year he expects the program, paid for by private donations, in all Worcester County schools that ask for it, along with a corresponding presentation by a drug addict from each community. He believes this program will “show teens that drugs do have consequences.”

In an effort to cut down on petty offenders landing in jail, Evangelidis says he’s revived the Project COPE programs in Worcester, Fitchburg and Webster, which provide drug tests and classes, and keep track of criminal offenders and give them one last opportunity to help themselves before jail becomes the only option.

“The idea of throw away the key doesn’t work in criminal justice,” says Evangelidis, who adds, “Everybody agrees COPE works,” but confusion and miscommunication between the involved agencies in the past kept the number of enrolled offenders low.

Evangelidis also takes pride in the inmate Community Service Program, an aspect of the jail that Glodis also trumpeted.

Evangelidis says he’s doubled Glodis’ program. He disagreed with the numbers Glodis provided to Worcester Mag that showed the two administration’s programs used a similar number of inmates. The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office has calculated that between January 2011 and June 2011, 196 inmates have spent 311 hours over 43 days in the city of Worcester alone doing service work at Little League fields, churches and a bus stop, saving the city and local nonprofits $61,260. In Worcester County, 38 communities have seen $640,421 worth of service work done by Worcester House of Corrections inmates in that same time frame.

Only soon-to-be released prisoners that are tagged as nonviolent, not a sex offender, and not a flight risk are eligible for work-release jobs, which is why only a small fraction of the jail’s 1,150 inmates partake in a program that Evangelidis loves.

“It’s the biggest win-win I’ve ever seen in public life in my career,” he says, highlighting the fact that communities adore the free labor while inmates foster a sense of pride over work they’ve done.

THE POLITICS

Aside from these reforms, a large part of Evangelidis’ 2010 campaign revolved around eliminating politics from a jail run by a politician. He promised that his campaign wouldn’t accept contributions from jail staffers or their spouses, refused to promote himself once elected (indeed, Evangelidis immediately removed Glodis’ name from jail equipment and elected to leave his name off of vehicles), and changed hiring and promotional metrics. He says he’s “done everything to eliminate politics” at the jail.

But politics haven’t left yet. High profile defections have brought up the question of whether or not new hiring and promotions have been because of aptitude or alignments with previous administrations.

Evangelidis spins that his administration has “done more with less,” noting 59 employees have left since December 22, 2010, saving more than $2.5 million in salary costs; 31 of those were “initiated by the employer” while others came as resignations or retirement. The jail now has only eight assistant deputies, down one from Glodis’ time and several from Glodis’ predecessor, Mike Flynn, who lost to Glodis in 2000.

“We’re doing a great job with eight assistant deputy supervisors,” Evangelidis argues. “That’s a sufficient amount right now.” Evangelidis says jail employees are sick of feeling like upward movement comes as a result of “politics and not their work ethic.” Those who haven’t adjusted, he says, are free to walk. It hasn’t helped his case that those who have lost their jobs or quit though, were heavy Glodis and Bove backers.

Bove left in June after a demotion from assistant deputy superintendent to captain, while former jail human-resources director Jude Cristo and assistant deputy superintendent for community programs George Valery were both left in January. (Christo was fired while Valery was placed on administrative leave, then retired.) Cristo donated $1,400 to Glodis’ campaign since 2006, while Valery and his wife, Christine, donated more than $1,500 since 2005 to Glodis. Bove did not want to make any on-the-record comments to Worcester Mag.

These actions have met little pushback from the rank and file employees. “The union is optimistic that Sheriff Evangelidis will continue to work hard at implementing the positive change platform that he ran on,” writes Warren Lohnes, Jr. to Worcester Mag. Lohnes is president of the New England Benevolent Police Association Local 550, which represents the jail’s correctional officers.

Amongst jail higher-ups and former employees, these moves haven’t been held in the same regard. Evangelidis’ administration has hired 10 new employees, but a former employee, who asked not to be named, points out that many of those hires worked on Evangelidis’ campaign.

Notably campaign manager David Tuttle, who has taken on the job of program and management analyst, described as a “temporary” two-year, $90,000 salary job. After terminating a bloated outside counsel contract with former Glodis ally Jeffrey Turco, Evangelidis hired former Worcester Assistant City Solicitor Andrew Abdella as inhouse lawyer, an Evangelidis campaign volunteer.

But Glodis understands Evangelidis’ motives. After all, shouldn’t a sheriff put people on their leadership team that they trust?

“I think the sheriff should have the right to put together his own management team. If he can’t do that, then don’t let him be evaluated on the performance of the jail,” says Glodis, who adds that he came under criticism for similarly surrounding himself with administrators who he knew. “If you’re running a tight ship, it’s hard to make friends.”

Evangelidis says system-wide changes in the job-application process have weeded out potential patronage hires. Advertising openings in the newspaper and online may change the perception that one could only get a job at the jail if they knew someone there.

Potential hires also have to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and take a written test. Credentials of applicants have also risen: no one with less than a minimum of an associate’s degree or two years of military service will be considered. In the wake of the recent state probation department hiring scandal, jail administration say they won’t accept letters of recommendation on behalf of an applicant from elected offi cials.

Evangelidis has changed the promotional method as well, asking for recommendations for future captains and lieutenants from his deputies, eschewing an old system that relied on score sheets. Former employees have a different opinion, saying this move increases the chance for political gamesmanship, as deputies now only need to pick and choose whom they like for promotions.

The sheriff argues that his changes have made promotions merit-based; he says he’s promoted one person to deputy so far, and that person had 24 years of experience. He has also pledged not to deputize anyone who hasn’t been through a police or correctional academy.

“I believe that he would admit that one of his more daunting challenges is to positively impact staff morale by countering decades of rampant political patronage,” writes Lohnes.

SYSTEM ISSUES

Glodis says his philosophy is that jail “can and should be more than a prison.” But Evangelidis’ philosophy seems that no one should be there at all.

“The ultimate goal for us is to not get people in here in the first place,” Evangelidis preaches. “If I can run a more efficient jail then I don’t have to focus on jobs and patronage,” he adds.

He knows that 85 to 90 percent of the facility’s inmates are drug addicts, and that recently released prisoners’ narrow window of never returning to jail heavily relies on whether or not they seek out drugs immediately after their release. He’s aware that the morale of jail staff directly ties into employee and inmate safety. He knows that giving inmates the satisfaction of doing work via community service improves their self-worth when they’re released from jail. He also understands that a new sheriff will suffer allegations of patronage or favoritism, and that changing long-standing policies will be met with criticism.

Sadly, Evangelidis has inherited a jail where overcrowding and questions of inmate safety led to a 2008 report by the civil-rights division of the federal Department of Justice that found certain Worcester County House of Corrections conditions and practices “violate the constitutional rights of persons confined there.” If there were ever a time where a sheriff would want his reforms to make as much noise as jail politics, then this would be it.