After months of waiting in pain in a Bristol County, Mass. jail, a man who had been told by doctors that his hip was “totally gone,” was denied surgery and instead given a simple shoe lift as a solution. Later he found out, through the process of filing multiple medical grievances and appeals, that this was a common experience. The healthcare provider in Sheriff Thomas Hodgson’s jail repeatedly refused treatment to those under their care and offered laughably, and sometimes deadly, solutions to medical conditions. Across the country, over 1000 people die in jails each year.
Sheriffs, 90 percent of whom are White men, run the majority of jail facilities nationwide where millions of Americans enter and leave every year. We expect these sheriffs to make their choices based on public safety but have found that it is contributions to their political campaigns that might motivate our jailers instead. After a year of research, examining dozens of sheriffs in 11 states, we found that companies contracted by the sheriff also often bankroll sheriff’s races. CPS healthcare donated more than $20,365 to sheriffs’ campaigns in Massachusetts, $12,040 of which went directly to Hodgson. In return, Massachusetts state sheriffs awarded them a total of $9.82 million in contracts over a decade.
The Paid Jailer report suggests that industry donations to sheriffs are not only likely damaging to justice and democracy but also incredibly common. Construction companies contribute tens of thousands of dollars and then go on to build bigger jails. Legal firms fund races and end up representing the sheriff’s office in misconduct cases. Our research uncovered more than $6 million in contributions from donors with potential ethical conflicts. More than 40 percent of contributions to sheriffs we studied came from conflicted donors whose influence could incentivize more arrests, lead to more deaths in custody, and keep more people in jail.
Most of this is legal, but it is both dangerous and ethically questionable. In East Baton Rouge, La., Sheriff Sid Geautreaux received funds from a company that provides uniforms, from security companies, from the construction companies that want to build a new jail, and from the contractor that runs work placements for incarcerated people. In Pinellas County, Florida, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri took money from the company that provides jail transportation, even after two people died in that company’s custody. Each year, public officials spend millions of taxpayer dollars to reward donors. In return, those donors advocate for over-incarceration and bad treatment, which fall disproportionately on communities of color.
These corporate donors are facilitating the extremely long tenures of sheriffs, which average 24 years. Corporations big and small tend to see sheriffs as long-term business partners, who wield great amounts of local power with little oversight. They make arrests, run the local jails, and award numerous lucrative contracts.
Local sheriffs are deeply enmeshed with a system of law enforcement designed to incarcerate and over police Black, Latinx, and indigenous people. In addition to re-envisioning how we think about safety in this country and reinvesting in communities, we must overcome this major barrier to change: a political and campaign finance system that reinforces the status quo and leaves people’s lives behind.
Our report identifies the financial interests of private companies as a major barrier to ensuring sheriffs remain focused on justice and safety. Those companies are seemingly influencing decisions of life and death and today organizers nationwide are calling for major changes in policing. Communities for Sheriff Accountability, a coalition of more than 30 groups across the country, has demanded seven steps for sheriffs to take to improve community safety including reallocating resources towards community-based systems of health.
But, we also need a systemic solution to the wealthy special interests driving mass incarceration and over-policing. Part of that solution should be ending pay-to-play in local elections. Contractors and those that work for them should not be allowed to donate to the people that award them contracts. We also need to uplift the voices of everyday people in our elections and employ citizen-funded elections and robust disclosure and transparency laws.
In response to The Paid Jailer report, Sheriff Hodgson of Bristol County said, “If people don’t like the laws, then they need to go lobby to change them,” and on this, we can agree. State and local governments have a choice. These conflicts of interest can not persist in a country that wants to heal. Instead, they should act quickly, removing mass incarceration money from our elections.