PITTSFIELD -- Dostoevsky said the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. Recently, Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice did just that, in effect.
The group recently hosted Frank Busener, a re-integration officer for the Berkshire County Sherriff's Office, and former prison inmate Dan Landry for the scoop on the county's lockup landscape.
Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction, a 160,000-square-foot, $34 million complex off Route 8 in Lanesborough, houses a total inmate capacity of 500, employs roughly 275 and has a an annual budget around $14 million.
Inmates, who mostly struggle with drug problems, serve terms ranging three days to seven years. Busener told the audience staff always seek new ways to delimit recidivism.
"In my line of work I have to have some compassion for people," Busener said. "I have to have empathy, tolerance, patience. They're already punished when they come to jail. Punishment might not even work. If it did, someone would be incarcerated once and, ‘OK, I learned my lesson.' Or maybe on the second time, the third time, the fourth time, the fifth time."
Busener himself served time on Rikers Island before becoming a fireman in New York City and moving on to his career working with inmates.
Landry's own history followed the pattern Busener described, with his total lifetime arraignments numbering more than 100.
Growing up in an abusive and violent household, Landry simply said violence became a way of life.
"Maybe it was the wrong thing, but it's all I knew," he said. "And I believe that's what my father knew and my grandfather before him knew."
For a small community, there is a lot of violence in the Berkshires, Busener said, probably due to high levels of poverty.
Offenders at the jail are likely to be exposed to various methods of stemming the tendency to violence.
Prisoners are taught to meditate and in a relatively new development, the Second Chance Program, allowed to care for horses on the property. The 12 Step Program is a success for many and prison employees like Busener try to help former prisoners find jobs.
"As a provider, I have to be open to a lot of different methods," Busener said. "Maybe what worked for me isn't going to work for somebody else. What we're trying to do is break these cycles."
Busener and others who work at the jail make rounds throughout the county -- at schools, churches and community centers -- talking with everyone from students to ex-convicts to families members effected by violence.
But progress is no easy feat in an atmosphere, like at the jail in Lanesborough, which Landry described as unfailingly negative and often violent.
"It's not Club Med," he said.
Busener said the sooner the stigma attached to crime and criminals -- that they are "bad" rather than suffering and possibly sick -- the better.
"The way our society thinks is something we have to begin to change," Busener said. "We don't give up on people. Nobody gave up on me."
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