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In candidate forum, Berkshire sheriff contenders spar over policy that sends women inmates to Chicopee

Dennis Powell screenshot

Dennis Powell, president of the NAACP Berkshire County branch, welcomes participants Wednesday evening to a candidate forum ahead of the first contested county sheriff election in over a decade. 

PITTSFIELD — The two Democrats running for Berkshire County sheriff participated Wednesday in a forum ahead of the first contested election in more than a decade.

The forum, which saw incumbent Thomas Bowler and challenger Alfred “Alf” E. Barbalunga engage in sometimes tense back-and-forth moments despite reminders to stick to questions posed by community members, was organized by the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters in concert with the ACLU of Massachusetts’ “Know Your Sheriff” campaign.

The campaign aims to educate voters about the role of the elected sheriff in their county, said ACLU Community Outreach Strategist Olivia Santoro.

It’s an elected role whose victors serve six-year terms. She said that sheriffs in Massachusetts differ from the police, as sheriffs officials do not have a role in “community law enforcement.” Their primary function is to helm and manage conditions at jails and houses of correction, and decide what sort of rehabilitation and education programs are offered locally.

In Massachusetts, not a single incumbent sheriff was voted out of office in the last time the election was on the ballot, in 2016. And, in that election, an “incredible” amount of voters in the general election — 670,000 across the state — simply chose not to vote in for a sheriff candidate, and left that field on their ballot blank, said Javier Luengo-Garrido, organizing strategist and community advocate for the ACLU.

“When somebody is going to the ballot every six years, it becomes really important for the voter, for the community, to be able to understand where that person stands — their values, their commitments, and their ideas,” Luengo-Garrido said.

The incumbent, Bowler, was a detective in the Pittsfield Police Department before he beat former state Rep. Daniel Bosley in the race for sheriff in 2010, and is currently seeking a third term. Barbalunga, the chief probation officer supervising the Southern Berkshire District Trial Court Probation service, was formerly elected to the Pittsfield School Committee and said he had previously been a correctional officer.

Over the course of over an hour, some of the well over 100 people in attendance at the virtual forum that was held over Zoom posed questions to the candidates.

At times, moderator Helen Moon, the former Pittsfield city councilor and chair of NAACP Political Action Committee, steered the candidates back to the the question at hand, reminding them that event was a “forum” rather than a debate, while other moderators muted the candidates when their answers went off topic.

The candidates addressed the issue of facilities for Berkshire County women who are incarcerated. Bowler said women in the pretrial and post-disposition phases of prosecution have been held at the women’s correctional facility in Chicopee since the Legislature and Western Massachusetts sheriffs deemed it the best way to deliver services to female inmates.

He said the facility’s location can pose hardships for women and their families, but defended it as having become a national model for females who are incarcerated, many of whom have substance use disorders.

“I still stand by that the services that are these individuals are receiving at the Chicopee Center are far greater and far more than we have here,” he said.

Barbalunga is campaigning to have incarcerated women held at the Berkshire County House of Correction on Cheshire Road. He said there is money and space to house women and juveniles who are incarcerated locally, and said the county was “sold out” when women were moved to the Chicopee facility.

“They were shipped down — you can imagine what that looks like when it’s a 2 1/2- to 3-hour round trip,” Barbalunga said, adding that it makes it difficult for family to visit them.

Bowler said that women will access a Sheriff’s Office initiative run from the old Second Street jail, called Second Street Second Chances, which he has said has a goal of supporting the formerly incarcerated women with things like workforce training. Barbalunga said that if elected, he would shutter that program and “return that building” to the community, saying he supports its use as a “mixed housing facility.”

The candidates were asked whether as sheriff, they plan on “cooperating” with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or continuing to work with the agency if they are active in the county. Barbalunga did not answer the question directly. Bowler said that the jail won’t hold someone solely on a federal immigration detainer. If someone is already incarcerated here, “has charges here” but also has a federal immigration detainer, Bowler said the office will notify ICE before that person’s court appearance and let them know that that person may be released.

“We do not hold detainees here for ICE,” he said. “I took an oath of office to follow and to uphold the laws of the commonwealth. Other than that, no, we do not plan to continue working [with], or never have worked with, ICE.”

In closing the event, Dennis Powell, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said there’s nothing more important to effecting change than voting in local political elections.

“A community can grow or it can falter based on this type of leadership. So I will say again, this is an important race. Everyone needs to pay attention, and everyone needs to get out and vote,” he said of the sheriff’s election. “Politics is local; change happens at a local level.”

The primary election is Sept. 6.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6296.

Cops and Courts Reporter

Amanda Burke is Cops and Courts Reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. An Ithaca, New York native, she previously worked at The Herald News of Fall River and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.

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