Ankle monitors may help some Berkshire County prisoners return home early
If it means returning sooner to her home and family, Jennifer Thurston would gladly wear "the bracelet" — an electronic monitoring device.
That option is now possible for local women jailed outside Berkshire County, but only under limited circumstances.
Thurston, of Adams, was sentenced in 2017 for embezzling money from a former employer to pay for what she said was her addiction to painkillers.
In an interview with The Eagle, Thurston said she wants to start rebuilding her life in the Berkshires, after she completes enough of what was originally a three- to five-year sentence. She has been jailed at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center in Chicopee, more than an hour from her home.
Thurston's wish could be realized. The Berkshire County Sheriff's Department has expanded its Global Positioning System (GPS) monitoring program to county women transitioning out of jail.
Until last June, the program was only available for men, since the department didn't have a staff person to run it, according to Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler.
More people around the U.S. are tracked electronically than ever before. GPS tracking of offenders has jumped 140 percent in the last decade, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative in Northampton, said that while he has reservations about the technology, it could bring a benefit to Berkshire County women by allowing them to return home sooner.
"In theory it could," Wagner said.
So far, one former prisoner at Chicopee has successfully completed the GPS monitoring program in the Berkshires.
While the ankle bracelets could help solve the distance problem, only women who receive a long enough sentence can wear the device. It is not an option for women awaiting trial.
And that is the status of more than half of the Berkshire women housed at the Chicopee jail.
A correctional officer who oversees the women's GPS program said it was relatively easy to implement, since the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction already had men in work-release programs wearing the devices while out on job shifts, as well as several men who have been released and wear the devices constantly.
"We're not recreating the wheel here," said Lindsay Maynard, who was hired in April as a liaison between the Berkshire and Hampden county sheriff's departments.
Maynard, whose salary is paid by both sheriffs, works with several other Hampden County staff to smooth women's transitions back into their home communities. She helps them adjust after being in jail for what she described as nonviolent crimes that are essentially "mistakes as a result of their substance abuse disorder."
Describing herself as a sort of "reentry caretaker," Maynard said her job, in part, is to give women nearing release "a fighting chance" at a stable life.
A probationer's daily schedule is plugged into a software program, Maynard said. The GPS then tracks the person's location. If there is any deviation from the person's itinerary — with some margin for travel time — Maynard and a central command unit at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction in Pittsfield are alerted.
No woman is eligible for the program until she has served one-third of her sentence. Maynard said that with an increase in shorter jail sentences and of women being diverted from jail into drug treatment, fewer women have been eligible to wear the device.
A woman has to request being placed in the program. Eligibility is determined by the state's inmate classification board. Violent crimes and disciplinary problems at the jail rule out a prisoner's eligibility, Maynard said.
Candidates must have shown they are trustworthy and committed to change. "It's another avenue to step someone down into the community," Maynard said. "Someone who hasn't shown [themselves] to be a flight risk or a violent person."
Use of the GPS monitor costs the parolee $6 per day. Maynard said eligibility would not be withdrawn for lack of money. "Ultimately, we're not going to deny someone that would be a good candidate because of $6 per day," she said.
While they praise the technology, people in the corrections field are not employing it as an alternative to pretrial detainment in the Berkshires.
Edward Dolan, the state's commissioner of probation, calls GPS "a highly effective tool for monitoring individuals in the community."
Dolan said GPS enforces compliance with treatment, including an ability to verify that a released prisoner is attending programs, he said in an email to The Eagle.
GPS monitoring can be set up to keep someone confined to their home or to a certain geographic zone. It can also keep probationers away from areas like city parks, a single address or an entire city, Dolan said.
When asked whether the technology can be used to keep Berkshire County women accused of nonviolent offenses out of jail in the first place, probation officials would not answer directly.
Alfred Barbalunga, chief probation officer at Southern Berkshire District Court, said use of GPS tracking is up to judges.
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and at 413-329-6871.
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