‘Nothing short of a crisis’: Essex County correctional officers demand action from sheriff

“These circumstances have pushed your officers to their breaking point,” union leaders said.

Essex County sheriff vehicles are parked outside the Middleton Jail. Mary Schwalm for The Boston Globe, File

After an “extremely violent melee” at the Middleton Jail and House of Correction last month, the Essex County Correctional Officers Association is calling on the sheriff’s office to address “abysmal” working conditions.

The Oct. 22 incident involved six inmates, some of whom used improvised shanks — edged weapons — to attack a fellow inmate, according to Sheriff Kevin Coppinger.

Two officers and two inmates were treated at local hospitals for minor injuries, The Boston Globe reported.

“To describe the scene as chaos would be an understatement,” ECCOA leadership said in a press release Monday. “One veteran officer described the incident as the most terrifying situation of his entire career. Privately, officers have admitted to experiencing symptoms commonly associated with post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of the incident.”


The officers union accused Coppinger of attempting to downplay the incident by describing it as “nothing serious” to The Salem News. However, Essex County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Gretchen Grosky said Coppinger’s comment was referring to the severity of injuries.

“Sheriff Kevin Coppinger certainly believes that this incident within our facility was both serious and dangerous, and he has been abundantly clear on this point since the Oct. 22 altercation occurred,” she told Boston.com in an email.

In a statement Wednesday, Coppinger commended the officers and K9s for their bravery and professionalism, noting the incident was “one of the most serious that has occurred in my six years as sheriff.”

Six men have been criminally charged for the fight, according to the sheriff’s office.

‘A pressure cooker’

The mayhem at Middleton was not an isolated incident, ECCOA leadership said in an Oct. 27 letter to Coppinger. There have been at least 39 inmate-on-staff assaults and 84 inmates charged with having or making a weapon over the last year, they said, as well as 400 inmates charged with fighting since March. 

“These figures demonstrate the plain truth that the Middleton Facility is experiencing nothing short of a crisis,” union leaders said. 


The Essex County Sheriff’s Department said the numbers that the union provided were inaccurate and misconstrued, but did not provide a correction. 

“Like so many other correctional facilities, we have seen a spike in inmate aggression with the increasing numbers of violent offenders and gang-involved individuals coming into our jail,” Grosky said.

Earlier this year, the American Correctional Association gave the Middleton facility a score of 100% for mandatory standards and 98.9% for non-mandatory standards — the highest scores it has received since becoming accredited in 2000, according to the sheriff’s department.

But union leaders said Middleton Jail has become a “pressure cooker,” with a rapidly deteriorating atmosphere.

They alleged that the sheriff’s department “largely rejected and ignored” ECCOA’s proposals to make working conditions safer, and pointed to chronic understaffing and forced overtime as additional factors contributing to officer fatigue and burnout.

“These circumstances have pushed your officers to their breaking point,” the ECCOA told Coppinger.

Grosky outlined steps that Coppinger took in the aftermath of the fight, including relaying his concerns to officers at the facility, holding a debriefing with senior staff, and making plans for a full facility shakedown.

Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger at the Middleton Jail in 2017. – Photo / Mary Schwalm for The Boston Globe

The department also put additional operational plans in motion, Grosky said, though she declined to provide more details, citing facility security.


The ECCOA Executive Board also confirmed that the sheriff’s office outlined additional procedures in a meeting with union leaders last Friday.

“However, we’re not convinced these are the answers to our problems,” board members said in a statement to Boston.com. “More weapons have been found and more altercations amongst inmates have already taken place!”

Officials found three shanks after the incident and eight more during a week-long search of the entire facility, according to the Essex County Sheriff’s Department.

Grosky said Coppinger remains committed to working with the officers union.

“The safety and security of all of our employees and our incarcerated population remains Sheriff Coppinger’s highest priority, and he will continue to work with the union to address their concerns,” she said.


This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com