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Published: 3/5/2022 7:45:57 PM

Modified: 3/5/2022 7:45:21 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — A registered nurse who has worked in two western Massachusetts correctional facilities has announced her candidacy for sheriff of Hampshire County in the 2022 election, launching a Democratic primary challenge to Sheriff Patrick Cahillane.

Caitlin Sepeda, 41, is running for a six-year term in the seat based at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction in Northampton, where she worked for more than 9 years until taking a job at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction in Pittsfield last October.

“It’s a very boots-on-the-ground, grassroots form of nursing, where you are catching people at a low point in their life and a low point in their overall health care,” Sepeda, of South Hadley, said. Sheriff “is the job that a lot of aspects of my life have been leading toward.”

Cahillane was first elected sheriff in November 2016 and his campaign confirmed Friday that he will be a candidate for re-election to the position.

Sepeda said her education was originally in geosciences and her work involved monitoring air quality in Boston and other communities for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. A Ware native, she also has lived in Pelham and served on the town’s Conservation Commission for more than three years.

She earned a second bachelor’s degree from UMass Amherst’s nursing school — now known as the Elaine Marieb College of Nursing — and became a registered nurse in 2011. Her first nursing job was administering flu and pneumonia vaccines at area Walmart stores.

“I have worked within the walls, and I do understand the machine that exists” in the Hampshire County jail, Sepeda said. The sheriff needs to embrace the complex requirements and the relationships that form between staff and inmates, while leading with “vision, direction and strategy,” she said.

The jail is “antiquated” and physically designed for a style of corrections that is hands-off and based on surveillance of inmates from a distance, Sepeda said. Modern corrections should be seen as a direct care job with frequent personal interactions, she added, while public safety and facility security are “first and foremost.”

If elected sheriff, Sepeda said she would work to modernize the jail, which would require increased spending on the facility, its technology and staff training. She said highly educated and credentialed staff are underutilized.

Removing “red tape” and updating record-keeping systems would allow the jail to “free up staff to do the work of care and custody, rather than administrative minutiae,” Sepeda said. “The answer of ‘we’ve always done it this way’ does not hold water.”

Sepeda started working at the Northampton jail under the leadership of prior Sheriff Robert Garvey, a former teacher who made inmate education a central pillar of his administration.

“That’s a similar kind of thing that I can bring to this race,” Sepeda said, citing her health care expertise as a critical tool in battling the substance abuse and untreated mental illness that lead to many incarcerations and repeat arrests. “I come to this with a new, innovative, dynamic approach … with the same kind of non-traditional background that lends itself to a different lens to view corrections through.”

Sepeda plans to spend the next several weeks gathering the 500 signatures required to appear on the ballots in 21 Hampshire County communities. She said she will spend substantial time talking to voters in the hilltowns to learn more about how the Sheriff’s Department can serve their law enforcement needs.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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