Lately I have been reading nostalgic stuff about Honor Court; reading how the town was nice and clean and there was no graffiti in the old days when the guys from Honor Court and their push-broom brigades kept the town clean. Older Italians are nostalgic for Mussolini, who made the trains run on time. Some older Germans probably are nostalgic for Hitler and his slave labor brigades.
The program was founded in 1970 by the late Bill Nagle, an ex-alcoholic who was a powerhouse politically and a force to be reckoned with in the probation department. Several years after Nagle died in 1993, the organization came under fire amid questions about its finances and oversight of its programs. In 2002, the organization closed its residential programs in the city, though it continued Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, and a scaled-back street-cleaning program. In December of 2000, there was no Christmas meal, and Honor Court, for all practical purposes, ceased operations.
All the years I saw the guys sweeping the streets for old Billy Nagle and the Chamber of Commerce I never saw any of them smiling. Not one. It was about as public kind of humiliation as you can get, cleaning up the garbage every morning, as the so-called solid citizens came and went. The town and the merchants got free or almost free labor from this slave labor brigade drafted by judges who gave guys with facing DWI or public drunkenness charges, alternative sentences. For some men and women, maybe the most vulnerable, Honor Court was a life sentence living in crummy dormitories and being yelled at by old Billy, who called his methods tough love, and held his AA-Synanon type meetings down at the courthouse, and ran a rein of terror. Cross Billy, don’t show up for a job, and you went back to jail. He loved to yell at people. He had doctors who would say that you were eligible for SSI, and then he would hold your check every month, deduct room and board, and dole you out expense money. And everyone was afraid of Billy, even the head of the Chamber of Commerce, who crossed to the other side of the street so he wouldn’t get yelled at. When they wanted something from the city that the Mayor wouldn’t give them, he marched his boys into the City Council meetings and they would all fill up the back of the chamber and glower at us.
A long time ago I went into their old headquarters behind the Shea block up in Florence to talk with Billy, and here he was, working the phone. That morning he was calling probation officers at jails all across the state looking for a plumber. If you were a skilled tradesman with alcoholism or a drug problem you got to work on one of his projects. He pulled in a lot of people out of poor neighborhoods of Springfield and greater Boston to keep our streets clean. After the old man died, other “recovered” people took his place, and the program spiraled down-hill. Following a heroin death in their Florence headquarters, police moved and cracked down, and after drug and alcohol testing, half of the program’s residents were asked to leave.
Ask our head of our parking department about Honor Court if you want to get an earful. He tried, for quite awhile, to get a signed contract out of them to do work for the city. Work programs are fine, but they have to be professionally and compassionately administered. People have to get paid for their work. Yes, I was walking around town the other day, and the graffiti doesn’t look good, but bringing back the Honor Court is not the answer. We have to remember that people with alcoholism or drug addiction problems need firm but respectful help and real rehabilitation.