New sheriff aims to keep people out of system

(Photo Courtesy Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office) Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins (at podium) speaks at the State House shortly after being appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick (at right) Jan. 21.

By John Ruch and Seth Daniel, Gazette Staff

Steven Tompkins is the new sheriff in town, and aims to hold the job as Suffolk County’s top jailer for years to come. But, he said in a recent interview at the Gazette office, he is also working hard to put himself out of business with a bevy of programs to keep kids and repeat offenders out of jail.

Tompkins, 55, said his efforts are strongly informed by his life experience growing up black in a Harlem housing project.

“I have a particular thing…with black and brown kids [acting] as if [going to jail is] an OK thing to do. It’s not a rite of passage to adulthood,” Tompkins said. “Once you fall into the system, you’re in a world of hurt.”

Tompkins was appointed last month as an interim replacement for former Sheriff Andrea Cabral, a Jamaica Plain resident who recently was named the state’s secretary of public safety and security. Tompkins was Cabral’s top public relations and outreach official, and before that did similar work at Dimock Community Health Center on the JP/Roxbury border.

That also means Tompkins has no direct experience in law enforcement or running a jail. He was quick to raise that issue himself in the Gazette interview, noting that the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department does not act as patrolling first-responders like some other sheriffs around the country.

The sheriff’s main job is overseeing the Nashua Street Jail and the South Bay House of Correction, which together can house more than 2,000 inmates. After 10 years of working for Cabral, Tompkins is familiar with both places.

Cabral took over in 2002 from Sheriff Richard Rouse, who took an early retirement package after management scandals, including multiple cases of correction officers abusing inmates, led him to request a study reviewing his department. Rouse, who had no law enforcement or corrections background, left behind a “world of upheaval,” Tompkins recalled.

While Cabral was widely crediting with reforming the Sheriff’s Department, there were some inmate deaths under her watch, notably including the 2010 suicide of alleged “Craigslist Killer” Philip Markoff. A South Bay inmate died after a fight in December.

Tompkins said that violence is rare in the jails and that there is “no pattern of concern” to the infrequent inmate deaths.

Overcrowding is an issue nationwide in jails and prisons, but Tompkins said that Suffolk County’s facilities are well below capacity and have been for some time for unclear reasons.

Tompkins he was more deeply involved in the other big part of the sheriff’s work: running a diverse array of programs to stop people from “coming to see us”—Tompkins’ favored euphemism for people going to jail.

He created the department’s “Common Ground Institute,” a program that trains inmates in such careers as carpentry, teaches them how to apply for a job, and attempts to have work waiting for them when they get out. He said the program has a roughly 33 percent employment success rate and a lower long-term job retention rate, but those numbers are a success in terms of keeping people out of the criminal lifestyle.

Other programs reach out to at-risk youths in places like JP’s Bromley-Heath housing development. One lets kids meet uniformed officers in an attempt to make their first dealings with law enforcement positive. Another brings kids on a jailhouse tour to see how serious and unglamorous it is.

“We need to get in front of the curve. We need to keep kids out of the system,” Tompkins said.

When the Gazette asked about his own experiences growing up as one of those at-risk kids, Tompkins enthusiastically recalled his journey from Harlem’s Taft projects to Boston College.

“I grew up in a single-parent household in Harlem,” he said, recalling how he sometimes shared a bunk bed with boarders so his mother could make ends meet. At the same, his mother worked in a high-end Manhattan law firm for a partner with an opulent office.

“He had the leather furniture and mahogany desk and cufflinks and a stogie,” Tompkins said, describing how it opened his eyes to a different world.

His skill as a “decent” visual artist helped him to succeed by attending an art and music high school.

“When people take a whack at the projects, it bothers me. There was community,” Tompkins said. But, he added, its violence was real.

“Kids from different projects would fight each other…with bats and chains,” he said, adding that he found the turf wars absurd when the kids didn’t own the land.

“I refuse to get my behind kicked for something I’m not invested in. It was incomprehensible to me,” he said.

His background gives him the credibility to tell youths and the many men of color in the jail system, “I am you,” Tompkins said—and also to say he won’t accept excuses that “‘the white man won’t let me [succeed], the system won’t let me.’”

Tompkins has never run for elected office, but he is about to get a crash course. Patrick’s interim appointment ends next year, when voters will get to choose someone to fill out the rest of Cabral’s term. That ends in 2016, when the office goes on the ballot again.

“I fully intend to run both times,” Tompkins said. “I’m not interested in being a state rep. or state senators. I’m a little long in the tooth for running for federal office. I’ve never thought about or desired to be a mayor or governor. This particular population of folks I get an opportunity to help really means a lot to me.”

Tompkins said he sometimes runs into former inmates at the grocery store or movie theater. When the inmate says they’re doing well, he said, “That’s what it’s all about.”

Corrected version: An earlier version of this article said that former Sheriff Richard Rouse resigned his office, without adding that the resignation was a technical requirement so he could take an early retirement package offered by the state.

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