The longest serving sheriff in Massachusetts was honored at the White House today for his pioneering work helping local jail inmates re-enter society.
Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe was honored as one of 16 so-called “Champions of Change.” The program was created by the White House as an opportunity to highlight individuals who do extraordinary things to empower and inspire people in their communities. Ashe was introduced along with the other honorees by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Ashe, now in his 40th year as Hampden County Sheriff, is planning to retire in 2016.
Holder said all of this year’s honorees in the Champions of Change program had distinguished themselves with their dedication and hard work to help people with criminal records find viable employment opportunities.
" I believe we can all be proud of the work that is underway," said Holder.
Ashe is credited with establishing a program that has helped offenders find over 10,000 jobs in the past 20 years.
" Ninety percent come to us with substance abuse, 5th-6th grade education, 93 percent lack marketable skills. So,what I am so proud of is that myself and the staff have challenged ourselves to respond to that," said Ashe at the White House Monday.
The re-entry effort in Hampden County uses some 300 community partners including public, non-profit and private organizations that provide a range of educational, counseling and other support services to the offenders while they are still in jail and after they are released.
" We are the first in the nation to establish after- incarceration support services. We have 2,000-3,000 inmates that come back for that one-stop shopping. Not just employment, but mental health and substance abuse counseling."
Ashe said the re-entry program has helped reduce recidivism rates and made neighborhoods safer. The inmate population at the Hampden County Correctional Center has fallen by more than 600 in the last decade.
" We are very, very proud," said Ashe.
Another participant in Monday’s White House program was Piper Kerman, author of the best-selling memoir Orange is the New Black. The book, which has been adapted as a popular TV series on Netflix, chronicles the year Kerman spent in federal prison for a decade-old drug conviction. Kerman, now an advocate for prisoners’ rights, said having a job when she was released gave her normalcy.
"Getting a job is the single most important expectation for a person returning home from prison. Yet, policies and prejudices place that brass ring out of reach for too many," said Kerman.
She praised people willing to give others a second chance.
"Around the country we see people doing it right. I see corporations like Target and Home Depot show tremendous leadership in their decision to ban the box that asks about criminal convictions on job applications."
The White House said there were over 900 nominees for this year’s Champions of Change program.