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Job training, housing female inmates, COVID are top issues in Berkshire County sheriff primary

The Democratic primary for sheriff in Berkshire County has been anything but placid. Still, the two candidates share similar goals for people who are incarcerated.

As of the end of August, there were 166 men behind bars at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction. Of those, 101 are being held pre-trial and 65 have been sentenced.

Besides running the county jail and house of corrections, the Berkshire County sheriff is also in charge of a public safety dispatch center that serves 26 towns.

Tom Bowler is finishing up his 12th year as sheriff. He said his goal is to put incarcerated people on the right path and address negative influences like substance use.

Sheriff Tom Bowler is finishing up his 12th year as Berkshire County sheriff. He is running for a third term.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Sheriff Tom Bowler is finishing up his 12th year as Berkshire County sheriff. He is running for a third term.

"Those who get sentenced to our facility are members of our community and they’re going to get out. We want to make sure they are much better when they leave us than when they come in," Bowler said.

Bowler, who is 62, was a Pittsfield police detective before becoming sheriff.

His opponent, Alf Barbalunga is the chief probation officer in the Southern Berkshire District Court. Barbalunga, 50, said being sheriff is about helping people.

"When people are at their lowest and worst in society, you have the ability to bring them back up," he said.

That’s about the only thing the two candidates might agree on.

Barbalunga’s campaign logo is dominated by a big dog’s face. It's an image of his beloved family pet, a kind of mastiff which Barbalunga says is loyal and tenacious. 

"Fighting for the underdog and when cornered, can be ferocious," Barbalunga said.

He said that's how he sees himself.

Barbalunga has regularly nipped at Bowler’s record on issues like the size and lack of diversity on Bowler’s executive team, the operation of work release and community service programs, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alf Barbalunga is a candidate for Berkshire County sheriff in the the Democratic primary.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Alf Barbalunga is a candidate for Berkshire County sheriff in the the Democratic primary.

"You had no programming. No rehabilitation for a while," Barbalunga said at a debate in mid August streamed and sponsored by Pittsfield Community Television along with iBerkshires. "Get a hard number on how many people are actually working on work release programs right now or community service. Single digits. Perhaps none."

"We have currently, right now, four or five individuals," Bowler responded, "out doing community service programs."

Only some of the people who are sentenced are allowed to participate — or choose to. Bowler’s work release program, which pays and employs eligible inmates in Pittsfield businesses, has not restarted since COVID.

"We are always very, very careful. In  the first 20 months of COVID, we were COVID-free for inmates," Bowler said. "A lot had to shut down to save lives."

And COVID is still a challenge. Some inmates choose not to get vaccinated. Earlier this month, 29 incarcerated people were infected. His campaign manager said everyone infected will be cleared by this week.

Bowler said he is talking with companies about restarting the work release program. But Barbalunga called it "the COVID crutch."

"It's a very serious health issue across the country, but it's also an excuse to shut down operations," Barbalunga said. "You don't stop doing the job just because of this pandemic. You find better ways to do it."

Bowler started an aquaponics growing operation of organic lettuce at the jail for inmates who can’t leave the grounds because of their charges. Bowler said they grow 250 heads of lettuce a week for inmates’ meals. Hundreds more are donated to food pantries and churches.

"It gives them a sense of purpose," Bowler said. "And it gets them out and getting to work on a work ethic and feeling good and building their self-esteem and their self-confidence."

Some incarcerated men at the Berkshire County House of Correction can work in the aquaponics lab, where they learn to grow organic lettuce. Hundreds of heads of lettuce are grown every week They are served to inmates and donated to food pantries.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Some incarcerated men at the Berkshire County House of Correction can work in the aquaponics lab, where they learn to grow organic lettuce. Hundreds of heads of lettuce are grown every week They are served to inmates and donated to food pantries.

But Barbalunga said he isn’t sure he would continue the program. He questions whether the skills could help inmates get a job later.

And he has another criticism of Bowler’s record.

"Our Berkshire County women got ripped out of the community back in 2014," Barbalunga said.

He opposes Bowler’s decision to move women from the Pittsfield jail to the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee after a new housing unit was built there.

"They’re our Berkshire County women. They're three hours away. A loved one cannot get down to visit them," Barbalunga said.

It is three hours round-trip from North Adams. A little more than two hours from Pittsfield. Right now, 13 women from Berkshire County are incarcerated in Chicopee.

"The women were being shortchanged [at the Pittsfield jail]," Bowler said. "You had such a huge population of men. All the services were going to the men and not to the women. It was unfair to them."

Bowler recently met with women from Berkshire County incarcerated in Chicopee, who had been in Pittsfield. He said they don’t want to come back.

"They have a freedom of movement. They can go from housing unit to housing unit for different programs," Bowler said. "They get outside in the fresh air. They feel good about themselves. They also have a number of services, gender-specific services that we could not provide here."

Barbalunga said there is room at the Pittsfield facility for women without additional cost. Bowler said it would cost millions that lawmakers wouldn’t approve since the state already paid for Chicopee.

In most states, sheriffs are elected for a four-year term. In New Hampshire, it’s two years. In Massachusetts, it's six.

There is no Republican candidate in this race. So whoever wins the battle for the Democratic nomination next week will most likely be the next sheriff.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Previously she served as the editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub, a collaborative of public radio stations. Earlier in her career she was the Midwest editor for NPR in Washington, D.C. Before working in radio, she recorded sound as part of a camera crew for network television news, with assignments in Russia, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba and in Sarajevo during the war in 1992.
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