Why Pittsfield jail opted to move women out

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PITTSFIELD — When the new Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction opened in Pittsfield almost two decades ago, it included a women's section with 36 cells, along with 288 cells for men.

But in 2014, female detainees and prisoners were sent to Chicopee after a new housing unit was completed at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center.

Sheriff Thomas Bowler said this past week that women housed in locked units at mostly male-filled county jails in Western Massachusetts weren't getting the programs they needed, and couldn't move easily to their programs or jobs.

Bowler said the move came in 2014 because that was when the Chicopee jail was ready to accommodate Berkshire women, as well as detainees and prisoners from other Western Massachusetts counties.

"It was not because we needed more room for the men," he said.

After that shift, the former women's "pod" was used to house men awaiting trial.

In 2014, the average daily population at the Pittsfield jail was 230. As of Friday, there are about 185 male detainees or prisoners, according to Bowler.

"This place holds 500 people if you double-bunked every cell," he said.

After 15 years of lobbying for state funding, former Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe secured $26 million to build the women's jail, which opened in 2007.

The women's jail is one of the Hampden department's six correctional and treatment centers, including the men's jail in nearby Ludlow, all run now by Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi.

"Even though it's further from home, it's better because they're being treated as equals," Cocchi said.

By expanding his correctional centers, Ashe set the wheels in motion to have Hampden County serve a far wider geographic area.

Sheriffs have to separate those in pretrial detention from prisoners serving sentences.

Al Bianchi, the Pittsfield jail's assistant superintendent for programming, said women were moved into a different unit before they were shifted entirely to Chicopee. "We ran into problems with that [women's pod] — we needed a second pod for pretrial men," Bianchi said.

Bowler, a former detective with the Pittsfield Police Department, said it was difficult to ensure the proper separation of genders at the Pittsfield jail, while at the same time trying to offer programs to what was typically a population of 30 to 40 women.

Before the Berkshire jail debuted in 2001, women awaiting trial were held at the former Second Street lockup in Pittsfield. Sentenced women went to the state prison in Framingham.

Sheriff Carmen Massimiano was able to bring all Berkshire County women to the 36-cell pod in the new jail, which their numbers did not always fill, Bowler said.

From 2001 to 2005, the number of women jailed at Berkshire rose from 34 to 46, and then began a steady decline.

Without having to house women, Bowler, who also runs the Second Street aftercare center for both genders, said he is able to focus on rehabilitating men rather than tend to operational and logistics problems.

The number of women jailed in both Hampden and Berkshire counties began what would become a steep climb starting in the mid-1980s. Since 1970, the number of female detainees in the United States increased 14 times. But the numbers remained low compared with men.

The expansion of facilities for women created "efficiencies," as a Franklin County Sheriff's Department spokesman put it. As an example, it has cost the Franklin jail $63,000 a year to house a male detainee, compared with $51,000 in Hampden County.

But transportation costs would rise. Women would have to be driven to and from Chicopee to courthouses in four outlying counties, as well as to their hometowns for services as they neared release.

The Hampden facility doesn't do this alone. The Berkshire County Sheriff's Department bears some of that expense by returning women from court to Chicopee, for instance.

State corrections spending from 2011 to 2016 outpaced money spent on courts and legal assistance, as well as kindergarten to Grade 12 education aid, according to a 2017 analysis of state data in a report published by MassINC and the Boston Foundation.


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