BC SealBoston College Magazine Winter 2004
current issue
features
prologue
Linden Lane
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Archives
Contact BCM
Coming Events
. Prologue
.

Cleaning house

.

Andrea Cabral straightened out the notorious Suffolk County jails. Now she has to face the voters

Andrea Cabral with Deputy Tom DeRosa in the female booking area at the Nashua Street Jail. By Gary Wayne Gilbert


BY dave denison

From her office window on the second floor of the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston, Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral '81 can look down on an enclosed open-air courtyard where prisoners take exercise. There's a basketball court at the center, a wide walkway at the periphery, and concrete multistory buildings containing cell blocks on all sides. The cells hold men (and in a separate unit, women) who have been sentenced on drug-related crimes, or assault and battery charges, or gang-related violence, or any number of misdemeanors. Many are from the surrounding neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester, others from the working-class and immigrant enclaves to the north: Charlestown, Chelsea, East Boston, Revere, Winthrop.

The courtyard is empty now, in the dead of winter, but Cabral looks through the window as if checking on the inmates. "The world's worst basketball players," she reports with a bemused smile.

The first thing you notice about Cabral is that she does not lack confidence in her opinions. That's lucky, for she needs to project confidence—she is the first woman sheriff ever in Massachusetts, and the department she heads has been plagued historically by scandal and mismanagement and been a target of investigations by the local press.

A former prosecutor, 44 and single, Cabral came to the sheriff's job in December 2002 with a reputation for hard work and a no-nonsense attitude about locking people up, especially men who resort to violence. Now she is seeing the other end of the pipeline. Being sheriff in Suffolk County means supervising about 1,750 inmates at the House of Correction (built in 1991 to hold 1,250) and a few hundred pretrial detainees at the Nashua Street Jail, also in Boston. Inmates at the House of Correction usually serve two years or less before going back out into the world. The minimum requirement of Cabral's job—and others have failed at this—is to make sure they are released without having been mistreated. If inmates take advantage of programs on the inside designed to improve their work skills or curb their violence, so much the better. For all that rides on the job of sheriff, it is an elected position requiring no prior experience. Cabral has come to it mid-term, appointed by the governor in unusual circumstances.

Looking down at the courtyard, Cabral is reminded of a situation that bothered her (one of many) when she took over the sheriff's department. During the previous sheriff's tenure, only male prisoners were granted time in the recreation yard. Women inmates—there are 100 or so at the House of Correction—were barred as presenting "a sight-and-sound issue," in prison-authority speak. With women in the yard, there had been hooting from the men in the cells above, Cabral was told, and some women had responded by yelling back or even pulling up their shirts. Cabral's solution was simple: Restore the women's recreation privilege, and let them know it will be revoked as soon as someone acts inappropriately. The women have exercised since without incident.

Cabral has many such stories, all told in the same way, as if she's still amazed at how much was wrong here, and how most problems could be put right with a little bit of common sense. Since arriving, she has insisted on rigorous training for new corrections officers, for example, whereas in the past someone with the right connections could be hired right off the street. The six-week training academy through which recruits now must pass emphasizes professional standards of civility in handling prisoners. Her facility is a not a pleasant place to end up, Cabral makes clear (she recently allowed an MTV camera crew into the cell blocks in the hopes she could help "deglamorize" prison for young people). But a word that comes up again and again in her discussions of how work is to be done here is "professionalism." County corrections is different from state prison, she notes. With people in for shorter periods of time and more emphasis on rehabilitative programs, if the job is done right, there is a chance that some of these inmates will not eventually graduate to the state prison system.


FOR THE last several years, though, the House of Correction has sorely needed its own course correction. Boston newspapers have carried regular stories about indictments of corrections officers for the use of excessive force. Two lawsuits have made their way through the courts documenting cases of sexual assault of female prisoners. At least one inmate was impregnated by an officer. A special state commission led by former U.S. Attorney Donald Stern was appointed to review conditions in 2001, midway through the previous sheriff's term. It found "a deeply troubled institution" and made 75 recommendations for change, some fairly basic: The sheriff should not appoint unqualified cronies to top positions; the sheriff should not solicit campaign contributions from employees. A new $14 million facility built to house women prisoners was deemed unsuitable and unsafe.

Shortly before the commission's report was released, the sitting sheriff, Richard J. Rouse, a former state legislator and career politician, resigned. The real damage to Rouse's reputation had been done more than a year earlier, when Boston Globe reporters secretly followed him for six days and found him putting in four-hour workdays, using a state vehicle for private errands, and scheduling time on the golf course even as criminal charges were being brought against seven guards for beating detainees at the county jail. Rouse had also opened a swanky office for himself at the county courthouse downtown, away from the commotion of the House of Correction.

When Cabral was appointed by then governor Jane Swift in autumn 2002 to serve the final two years of Rouse's term, one of her first decisions as sheriff was to operate from an office at the House of Correction. She wouldn't be working four-hour days, and she wanted everyone to know it. Now, she sits behind a large desk in a mostly unadorned but spacious room. A dark blue drape covers the entire wall behind her, as if to force visitors to concentrate on nothing but her imposing presence. When she wants to be serious, she can seem very serious. But she often breaks into a several-megawatt smile and laughs in a way that makes her shoulders rise up and her large six-foot frame relax.

Cabral at her swearing-in as sheriff by Governor Jane Swift, December 3, 2002. Courtesy of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office

"She's got a marvelous sense of humor, but she can be very forceful," says Cabral's chief of staff and longtime colleague from her days as a prosecutor, Elizabeth Keeley '76. "She's no shrinking violet." Cabral has been described as "intimidating" in newspaper stories. "I don't think I am," she says, going on to suggest that the comment may say more about the person making it than about her. But it seems never far from Cabral's mind that she is the state's first female sheriff. She is intent on doing the job well, she says, so that "no one would ever be able to say that a woman couldn't be sheriff in Massachusetts, and that a black woman couldn't be sheriff in Suffolk County."

Cabral manages a staff of about 1,100 employees and an almost $100 million budget. Since her appointment, she has insisted on interviewing every new employee hired in the department, giving special attention to new officers. That has helped to slow the hiring process, and the House of Correction this winter was about 40 officers short of optimum staffing, according to Superintendent Gerard Horgan, one of Cabral's top managers, whose responsibility is the day-to-day operations of "the house." But Horgan credits Cabral with bringing in "high-quality people." A 17-year veteran of the department, he describes Cabral as "an extremely quick study" who leads by example. Two years ago, he says, when Cabral appointed him to supervise the Nashua Street Jail, she showed up first at the 6:45 A.M. roll call to announce his promotion, then at the 2:45 roll call, and then again at the 10:45 shift change. "She basically had an 18-plus-hour day," Horgan says.

In an hour-long conversation in her office, Cabral talks about the challenges of her job. The more problems she describes—the lawsuits, the budget cuts, the guards caught smuggling contraband to inmates—and the more one looks around and tries to imagine coming to this place every day, this dreary block of buildings set down in an urban wasteland hemmed in by highways, the more one wonders: Why would anyone want this job? "Do you like it?" she is asked.

"I do," she says. "This is important. We run people's lives. We're in charge of other people. And we're in charge of people that a court has decided cannot live outside of these walls for a period of time. This is like a little city. We bring education, food, medicine—you name it, we bring it inside these walls. And it literally runs like a city. Because it is so enclosed, because we're dealing with a population that at least for a temporary period of time very few people on the outside care about, bad things can flourish here." She talks about the huge ripple effects of crime—of how a single auto theft can affect the lives and wallets of multiple people and companies. "If you can keep it so that out of 10 people, two don't re-offend, you've had a huge impact on society," she says. In fact, Cabral expects better than that—but not by much. Studies of recidivism suggest at least 50 percent of inmates will run afoul of the law again.

For now, Cabral is the mayor of this "little city." And she likes the position well enough that she's getting ready to fight to keep it. This summer and fall, she will run her first campaign for elective office. She will raise money, and she will talk about reform and professionalism and the changes she's made in this place that so few people on the outside care about. She will point to a 2003 year-end report published by her office that contends, "We have addressed nearly every recommendation made by the Stern Commission."

If things get rough, as they sometimes do in Boston politics, her credentials, her integrity, even her race and gender, may come under attack. If she wins, her reward will be a six-year term in office. One of the Stern Commission's chief criticisms of the sheriff's department was that not enough of its top officials had experience in criminal justice. By the time Andrea Cabral was appointed sheriff, she had logged 16 years in the Massachusetts criminal justice system.

Growing up in a suburban neighborhood in East Providence, Rhode Island, young Andrea was one of those children who chooses a future early—it was in fifth grade that she announced she wanted to be a lawyer, her mother recalls. "She always had a strong penchant for justice," Yvonne Cabral says. "She'd go to bat verbally for anybody who required it, if she thought that person was right and was not being properly defended." The Cabrals raised three children—Andrea was the middle one—in the raised ranch house where they still live today. Yvonne Cabral worked for 18 years as executive director of the East Providence Community Center. Joseph Cabral, whose parents came from the Cape Verdean island of St. Nicholas, was a steelworker for the Washburn Wire company in Providence. He was a union member, now retired. On many Saturdays, both mother and daughter recall, Andrea would be dropped off at the local public library. "She loved to read, and the librarian just loved her to death," Yvonne Cabral says. "I would read six, seven, eight books" in a day at the library, the sheriff remembers, "and it was literally my favorite thing to do, and I did that for years from a very early age."

Cabral carried her bookworm tendencies into college, majoring in English at BC. After graduating in 1981, she went on to Suffolk University Law School. In 1986, her first job out of law school, portentously, was as a staff attorney at the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department, where she worked on bail appeals for pretrial detainees at the jail.

Cabral at age seven / Cabral at her graduation from BC in 1981. 
				  Courtesy of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office

Having read, before high school, Vincent Bugliosi's book Helter Skelter—in which the prominent California D.A. recounts how he obtained murder convictions for the Svengali-like Charles Manson—Cabral had her mind set on becoming a prosecutor. She remembers the impression the book made on her—the challenge Bugliosi faced in convincing jurors to hold Manson guilty of crimes he directed others to commit, the gravity of government's responsibility to do the work to hold the guilty accountable. "I realized that was what I wanted to do," she says. After five years as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County and three years in the state attorney general's office, Cabral landed in the Suffolk County district attorney's office. The D.A. then was Ralph Martin III, who was winning attention as one of the few black Republicans in state politics. Martin appointed Cabral to head a newly created domestic violence unit.

The Massachusetts system for dealing with domestic violence was changing in the 1990s, and Cabral was part of a new trend of aggressive pursuit of batterers. Cases had been notoriously hard to prosecute, because victims often backed away from legal action. "At some point, the law collectively woke up and said, 'This is an assault and battery,'" Cabral recalls. "If this guy walked up to a stranger on the street and beat them up, there'd be no question that you would arrest him and he'd be prosecuted. Why is it any different that the person he beats up, he lives with?

"In the five years I was head of that unit," says Cabral, "we spent a huge amount of time training prosecutors, victim witness advocates, and police officers to approach the cases differently, to understand that they needed to make some good decisions at the scenes of these crimes, justify their actions in their police reports, write good police reports, and shore up our cases in other ways, because the victim could at some point walk away and not show up to court." In more than a few cases, Cabral proceeded without the victim's presence in the courtroom. "And the law allowed us to do that. We really became very proficient at it." In other cases, it was important to "redefine winning," she says. The victory might not be an immediate conviction in court; it might be spending enough time on the phone with a victim that she would know where to turn if the battering continued.

By the late 1990s, when Ralph Martin left the D.A.'s office, Cabral says, he was encouraging her to run for the position. "I laughed and said absolutely not. Because I've never liked politics, or what I perceived as politics." Her aversion came "from a certain amount of cynicism," she says, about "the political game," the glad-handing and the backslapping. And she didn't like the modern scrutiny of political candidates, the idea that "you sacrifice a certain amount of your private citizenship to be a public figure."

On top of all that, there was the obvious question of how a black woman, a political unknown at the time, could put together an organization in Suffolk County. Success in urban politics comes from having a base. Where was her base? Not in heavily Irish-Catholic South Boston or Charlestown. Not in the prosperous Back Bay or Beacon Hill districts. Perhaps she could start by appealing to Suffolk County's African-Americans, who account for 22 percent of the population. But voter turnout is often weak in African-American wards, and the city of Boston—which has never had a black mayor—does not have a good track record of embracing black political leaders.


POLITICS, HOWEVER, caught up with Cabral. With the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department in disarray in 2002, Governor Jane Swift was hearing from fellow Republican Ralph Martin that Cabral would make a good sheriff. Swift liked the idea of appointing a competent woman to the job, but there was a hitch: Cabral was not a Republican. As she readily admitted, she thought of herself as an independent and would prefer to stay that way. As Swift would have it, that wasn't an option. To win the appointment, Cabral agreed to join the GOP and promised Swift she'd run as a Republican candidate in 2004. It was a decision she would come to regret.

The Cabral appointment was one of Swift's last official acts—a lame-duck governor, she had been muscled out of the 2002 gubernatorial race by Republican Mitt Romney. After Romney's inauguration, Swift went home to western Massachusetts, leaving Cabral with a morass of inherited problems at the sheriff's department and without a friend in high places.

Cabral meanwhile faced an immediate and pressing worry—in the amount of $5 million. A lawsuit on behalf of 1,500 women who were illegally strip-searched at the Nashua Street Jail in the 1990s had resulted in a judgment of $5 million against the city of Boston and $5 million against Suffolk County. The city had paid its share. The county's payment—for which the sheriff's department was fully responsible, since actual county government structures have been practically abolished in Massachusetts—was due the week Cabral started her job. She soon found out it hadn't been paid, nor was money set aside to pay it. Somehow she had to come up with $5 million.

The court had no patience with the argument that the department simply didn't have the funds. And the longer the debt went unpaid, the more costly it got; the interest penalty was $50,000 a month. Cabral went to Boston mayor (and Democrat) Tom Menino's office for help and came up empty. She placed calls to Governor Romney's office and was told by his aides (rather abruptly, it seemed to her) that the state could not help. In early May, Cabral finally got her meeting with the governor, but no assistance. In the end, Cabral did the only thing she could. Owing almost $5.3 million, she directed in May that the settlement money be paid out of the sheriff's department's general operating budget. As a result, the department ended the fiscal year last summer in deficit.

Through it all, Cabral grew frustrated that she had been unable to develop a working relationship with the new governor. Word got out that she was upset enough to consider switching parties. And if she were going to switch, she faced a deadline—she would have to be a member of the Democratic Party for one year in order to declare her candidacy as a Democrat in the spring of 2004 for a run at the November election. A week after her disappointing meeting with Romney (at which the matter of her party status did not come up), Cabral traveled to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with Democratic senator Edward M. Kennedy and a public announcement of her decision: She would register as a Democrat. Newspaper coverage played it as a setback to Romney's efforts to bolster the Republican Party in the state.

Was it opportunism? One doesn't have to spend much time with Cabral to understand why she decided she would be happier as a Democrat. She remembers thinking highly in college of President Jimmy Carter and of being alarmed by Reagan Republicanism. Indeed, the opportunism question turns not so much on the switch—which brought her in line with her own inclinations—but on the original promise to Governor Swift that she would run as a Republican. Recalling it now, Cabral says she wishes the hiring decision had been made strictly on who could do the best job at the sheriff's department. She made her calculation that the job was more important than party affiliation. "If I had said, I won't run as a Republican, then the opportunity to help would have been lost. And I had to think about it."

What kind of ambition did her decision reveal? To hear Cabral tell it, there was more than desire for a political appointment—there was a sense of outrage that an important part of the local justice system was not being professionally and competently managed. Government authority was failing at one of its most basic responsibilities, and she knew she could put it back on track. Before she announced her decision to switch parties, she called Swift to explain. That conversation remains private, and Swift declined to comment on Cabral's decision for this story. In the end, Governor Romney's apparent disinterest in Cabral's decision gave her an out. As chief of staff Keeley puts it, "She was receiving no support from the Republican Party. She was essentially ignored." Cabral talks about her time as a Republican almost in terms of a temporary confinement. "Four months and 30 days," she says. "That's how long it lasted."


IT'S A BITTER cold Friday night in January and Andrea Cabral is hosting a graduation ceremony at the Morse Auditorium at Boston University for 15 new corrections officers who have made it through the department's six-week training academy. She wants them to regard this as a momentous event. After about 70 relatives and friends are settled in the auditorium, members of the sheriff's honor guard escort Cabral and her top deputies to the stage, one by one. The new officers then march in, dressed in sharp navy-blue pants, crisp blue shirts, black neckties, and black caps. With ramrod posture, directed by a Lou Gossett–like lieutenant, they take their position in the two front rows. As civilian hands go over hearts, the officers pledge allegiance to the flag with a white-gloved salute.

In Cabral's view, it is her hiring policies that will truly define whether she succeeds in this job. By being a hands-on manager, by weeding out the wrong kinds of officers and bringing in well-trained professionals, she can create an institution that emphasizes corrections along with legitimate punishment. Cabral has met each of the officers individually, in hour-long interviews in her office. Now, in her keynote address, she exhorts them to remember that they are part of "a new day in this department" and that "with great authority comes great responsibility." She reminds them that "sometimes you will be dealing with good people who have done bad things, and sometimes you will be dealing with bad people who have done bad things and will continue to do bad things." And then she leaves them with a story from her days as a prosecutor: She was working on an aggravated rape case and the accused was one of the most violent men she had ever prosecuted. She ardently wanted to see him behind bars. But while she was involved in selecting the jury, something disturbing happened. One of the prospective jurors, having been interviewed by Cabral and the defendant's lawyers, winked at Cabral on his way out of the room. She understood the wink to mean, "I'm with you." If she had kept that knowledge to herself, it would have meant one sure vote for conviction. But, she tells her new officers, that's not how the system is supposed to work; jurors must hear the evidence before taking a side. So she told defense attorneys about the wink and the prospective juror was dismissed. "You cut corners once, and it is so easy to cut corners a second and third time," she tells the new officers. (In the end, Cabral got the conviction anyway.)

On their two-month anniversary of employment, new officers meet with Cabral at the Nashua Street Jail to provide feedback

After her remarks, the audience is shown a video depicting scenes from the boot camp–like training the officers have just been through. There are early-morning calisthenics, and simulated attack-and-restraint practice, and an especially challenging routine where an officer gets pepper spray in the face and has to fight through noise and near blindness to call on a hand phone for assistance. From the stage, Cabral studies the video intently as she fingers her pearl necklace. The film ends with a still shot showing the words "Suffolk County Sheriff's Department, Andrea J. Cabral, Sheriff. Integrity Matters." The slogan has been used throughout the sheriff's department and will be used, as well, in the upcoming campaign. "Integrity Matters" is already printed on Cabral's bumper stickers and giveaway caps.


FEW CANDIDATES get far, even in local electoral politics, without having their integrity questioned. In fact, Cabral got an early taste of what is likely to come when she switched parties. She had received good press from Boston's two major papers upon her appointment. After her announcement in Senator Kennedy's office, though, information leaked to the Globe that she had defaulted on student loan payments. Both BC and Suffolk Law School had won judgments against her in the late 1980s, for a combined total of $6,478. Cabral told the press she was "not proud" of the record but that she had struggled financially early in her career because of low-paying public sector jobs and had repaid her loans in 1994. The news of her defaults set her up for a public flogging by the Herald's harshest columnist, Howie Carr, who called her, among other things, a "student-loan scofflaw."

Most political observers have reserved judgment on the political savvy of Cabral's party switch. Would she have stood a chance of getting reelected had she run as a Republican in Suffolk County, where Republicans are about as numerous as Yankee fans at Fenway Park? (To be exact, 9 percent of registered voters.) It isn't impossible—Cabral's mentor Ralph Martin proved as much when he won a contested race in 1996 as Suffolk County D.A. But Martin spent a lot of time making the rounds at community meetings around the city, and his suave, almost nonpartisan style went over well. And, too, a D.A. has an easier time than a sheriff making the news as a crusader against crime.

If Cabral faces a strong challenger in the Democratic primary for sheriff in September, the thinking goes, she could lose her job. Primaries in Boston generally draw low turnout, a fact that favors candidates with established organizations. As it happens, such a candidate is contemplating a challenge to Cabral—and he would seem to have a strong motive to run for Suffolk County Sheriff. Boston City Councilor Stephen Murphy was considered by former Governor Swift for the sheriff's appointment in 2002. But he declined to switch to the Republican Party and lost out to Cabral.

Now, says Republican consultant Charles Manning, it's not hard to imagine the kind of ad someone like Murphy could use against Cabral: "She first cut a deal with Republican Governor Jane Swift. Then, when she thought she could cut a better deal with Democratic leaders, she switched parties. Can you really trust Andrea Cabral?" How might that play in Democratic strongholds such as South Boston? Manning wonders. "I don't think most people see Andrea as a partisan figure," he concedes. But in a Democratic Party primary, that's not necessarily a winning suit.

If Murphy decides this spring to bypass the race, Cabral's life will be easier. Still, she will have a Republican opponent: Shawn Jenkins, a former budget director in the state's public safety office. Cabral's campaign manager, Matt O'Malley, says the campaign will need about $350,000 to run a strong race, and had raised about $50,000 by January. Cabral hired O'Malley after he made a credible run for Boston City Council last year at the age of 24. "We represent a lot of what the new Boston political landscape looks like," O'Malley contends. He envisions a coalition of young professionals and blacks and Latinos who can move city politics beyond the old ethnic and racial divisions. "We're going to build our own organization from scratch," he says.

Cabral, too, sees a "new landscape." She says she's grown more comfortable with the idea of being in politics, because she sees how a leader can bring about real change. Her mission is to bring something new to Boston politics: "The bottom line is, I am the first black sheriff in Suffolk County, and I'm the first female sheriff in the state. And that means that I bring a certain perspective that's never been held by any other sheriff, and a perspective that is held in only limited fashion on the political landscape in the city—because there just aren't very many black female politicians."

And yet that doesn't mean she envisions a campaign built around what is sometimes dismissively called "identity politics." It will be obvious enough to voters that Cabral isn't the stereotypical Boston pol. What she most wants them to respond to has nothing to do with race or gender: It's her mantras of integrity and professionalism. "People vote on their perception of how professional a person is," she says. So even as she will talk about the reforms she's brought to the "little city" she presides over, she knows that the conditions behind these walls only directly affect a small percentage of Suffolk County voters. "It's not a reform campaign, it's a professionalism campaign," she insists. That means appealing to voters' concerns that their tax dollars are being well spent, that prisoners are supervised by well-trained officers, and that the officers are supervised by experienced managers. If she can get that message across and win, Cabral says, it will be "a turning point in Boston politics." Why? It won't mean that race and gender are no longer factors—only that she was not disqualified because of them. Cabral responds with typical confidence when asked what that would mean for her long-term political career: "I assume it could go anywhere."

 

Dave Denison is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.

 

Photos (from top):

 

Andrea Cabral with Deputy Tom DeRosa in the female booking area at the Nashua Street Jail. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

 

Cabral at her swearing-in as sheriff by Governor Jane Swift, December 3, 2002. Courtesy of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office

 

Cabral at age seven, left, and at her graduation from BC in 1981. Courtesy of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office

 

On their two-month anniversary of employment, new officers meet with Cabral at the Nashua Street Jail to provide feedback. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

 

. . .
  » 
     
  » 
. .  
  » 
     
 
» 
     
Alumni Home
BC Home