Photo Gallery | Photos of the former Second Street Jail

PITTSFIELD -- Re-entry into the community for inmates at the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction could soon become a much smoother process.

County Sheriff Thomas Bowler is creating a pre-release center in the former House of Correction building on Second Street in Pittsfield to house up to 35 inmates near the end of their sentences who've been working and shown they want to turn things around.

He said the center will enhance a similar progression of support services run from the current Jail & House of Correction off Cheshire Road. All are focused on cutting the recidivism rate for inmates and giving them a supported fresh start at a successful life.

"Everything we do here is preparing them for re-entry," said Alan Rilla, ReEntry Services coordinator at the jail. "That's the buzz word in corrections today."

The state has come around to the salient fact that, unlike some long-term state prison inmates, "they are getting out [soon]," Rilla said. "The amount of time we have them is finite." he said. "It is our responsibility to give them every opportunity to succeed in life, rather than release them to the community to go back to the same lifestyle."

Bowler said the goal is to counter "the negative influences that have been attacking those individuals."

"Inside, we have five to eight months on average the maximum sentence at a house of correction is two and a half years," the sheriff said. "We try to give these individuals the tools, resources and skills they need to be able to fight off the negative influences that are going to attack them when they get back out."

Bowler said a certain percentage of inmates "couldn't care less what we can do for them." However, many were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they were arrested, he said, and after a few months of being sober "the majority realize they don't want to go back to that lifestyle, but can't do it all by themselves. They are looking for help within a structured lifestyle."

Lacking a separate building at the House of Correction for final pre-release programs and housing for those inmates, the facility now uses one of the facility's eight housing units, or pods, for that purpose, Bowler said, but the logistics of the operation are difficult.

"Obviously, every decision we make in this facility is based around security," he said, adding that when inmates "come back here at night to our mother ship, from working in the community, it creates a security nightmare. They have to be thoroughly searched -- the whole nine yards -- both going out and coming back."

Not only is that a difficult task for staff members, Bowler said, "but this is sending kind of a mixed message. Here you're giving these guys the freedom to work earn a paycheck and be out in the community, and you bring them back at night and it's almost like you're taking that privilege away."

The pre-release center on Second Street, expected to open soon after minor renovations and upgrades, will provide bunks, meals and other services for those inmates separately on site, Rilla said.

He said there already is considerable interest among inmates in pre-release services and in being transferred to what is known as D-Pod, where there is a chance to participate in the work program and other educational or counseling programs. Rilla said there were 57 inmates in that unit on a recent weekday, out of about 300 inmates or pre-trial detainees at the House of Correction and Jail.

Inmates qualify for D-Pod through their behavior while incarcerated and through participation in programs, such as drug or alcohol abuse treatment or counseling.

Even pretrial detainees, who are held within two of the pods in the jail section of the facility, are now getting support services, Bowler said. When their cases go to court some can point to progress through the programs they've participated in.

"Everything we do here is to try to cut down the recidivism rate, break that cycle," the sheriff said.

"Over 30 guys are working in the community right now," Rilla said, and living in the D-Pod. "The front door is locked at night, but inside they have freedom to move around," he said. "When inmates go off-site they are transported to the work site and picked up certain times."

That includes alternate times if overtime work is required, Rilla said, adding, "We have good communication between us and the employers."

The House of Correction has "a whole stable of employers that will accept offenders," Rilla said. "And it's incentivized: If they keep a guy on for at least 10 months, then there's a federal tax incentive to the company."

The biggest obstacles to successful reintegration are employment, housing and health care, and assistance with those needs is provided before and for a time after an inmate is released, Bowler said.

"We always say these guys want what we want - they want a job, housing and health care," Rilla said. "We find that employers, once they get past the stigma of hiring an ex-offender, are pleased not only with the services but that workers come in clean and sober and do a good job. We've had great success"

Bowler said pre-release services typically are provided for from three to nine months, including periods before and after release dates. Space for the new facility will be created in a south wing of the old House of Correction, not utilizing the main cell block, he said.

The program has received a re-entry services grant from the state Executive Office Public Safety and will hire three case managers and another part-time employee.

Long term, Bowler said, it would be ideal to have a pre-release center at the House of Correction off Cheshire Road. He plans to pursue state funding for that purpose.

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_therrien