|Q&A: Bowler Thinks Experience Sets Him Apart in Sheriff Race|
|By Brian Rhodes, iBerkshires Staff|
01:55PM / Saturday, August 27, 2022
|Thomas Bowler is running for a third six-year term as sheriff of Berkshire County.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Incumbent Thomas Bowler believes his experience sets him apart in the election for Berkshire County's next sheriff.
"I'm just looking forward to Sept. 6," he said. "And hoping that everything we've done up here for the 12 years for this community, the voters have recognized."
Bowler has served in the position since 2010 and has 37 years of law enforcement experience. Before becoming sheriff, he had spent 24 years working in the Pittsfield Police Department.
He is running for re-election against challenger Alf Barbalunga, the current chief probation officer of the Southern Berkshire District, in the Sept. 6 Democratic primary. As no Republican candidates are running for the position, whoever wins the primary will be the presumptive winner of the election.
The sheriff oversees the House of Corrections, a countywide dispatch office and a number of other programs.
"I have a great campaign team, they are outstanding and a great group of supporters," Bowler said. "We're fighting each day, and we keep moving along."
He recently sat down to discuss the campaign and related issues.
Question: With the primary just under two weeks away, what do you most want voters to know about you as the incumbent sheriff?
Bowler: We're not just care and custody up here; we're a community resource. I just want people to know that we have really been true to our word as a community resource with the partnerships we have forged over the last almost 12 years now. I ran my campaign in collaboration. When I was a detective, we collaborated with every resource we could get our hands on to solve crimes, and we we're very successful at it. And I knew the dynamics of Berkshire County were the furthest from the state house, and resources are all down in the east.
So we had to develop these partnerships in order for us to have a very unique situation out here, where we collaborate with our community partners, and not only just for program and treatment and re-entry, but also on the emergency services, with EMS, fire and Police. I just want people to know we've done our due diligence.
Question: Speaking of community collaboration and outreach, you have mentioned throughout the campaign that community outreach is a big part of your work as sheriff. Could you provide a few examples?
Bowler: I think what helps the justice-involved individuals going back out into the community are the things that we do behind the walls up here. And those are the partnerships with institutions like Williams College, with the Inside-Out program. The fact that we have that partnership; it's a great philosophy and psychology course. Then we have the partnership with Berkshire Community College. We first started out with the landscaping program, and then we morphed that into the manufacturing program and our welding program. These two institutions are fantastic. They encourage those justice-involved individuals that are leaving our facility to further their education, so they can have a better chance of success out in the community, when they get out.
Berkshire Health Systems, Fallon Health, Mass Health and CHP with the medically tailored meal programs. LTI Smart Glass, Cavallero Plastics, Unistress, SAMCO Industries. All these partnerships that we have, it all comes down to a stronger, healthier and safer community. The people we have here are members of our community. They're not all bad people, they just made some bad choices and we want them to be successful in the community.
Question: You've said in previous debates that COVID-19 hindered some of the House of Corrections' programming. As state and federal health guidance for the pandemic has continued to evolve, what has the department done to revitalize those programs?
Bowler: We're back in the swing of things with programs. Some of the programs only shut down for a few months because we had to limit the number of people coming in and out of this facility. I hope people understand, when you have congregate-living here, during COVID, it was imperative that we had to protect the people inside this prison. So we limited the number of volunteers almost zero that could come in during COVID, but we've lifted that. We have our volunteers coming back in now that help our with our educational or therapy programs, or faith-based programs. A lot of programs are back on track.
The work release programs with LTI Smart Glass, Cavallero plastics, Unistress and SAMPCO industries, we have already reached back out to them. If we have the inmates available who are classified and are able to go out, we are in the process of starting those programs back up. Because of COVID and the shutdown of the courts, we still have our pre-trial numbers bigger than our sentenced. And historically, our sentenced numbers were always the larger number. That sentenced population, it gave us more individuals available for those work release and community service programs. Once we get that shifted back and we have higher population to draw from to get involved in those work-release and community service programs, we'll be back on track.
Question: Berkshire County's female inmates in Chicopee have been a discussion topic throughout this campaign. You have been adamant that the inmates get a level of treatment that is not available in the county; can you expand on this?
Bowler: The Chicopee facility was build in the late 2000s. That's when the four Western Mass sheriffs at the time all realized that housing women under the same roof as men, because the numbers were lower, a lot of the services and programs and treatment were geared for the male population. And the female population, because you have to keep them sight, sound and separate from the males, were being short changed.
They all decided, and they met with their legislative body at that time, that after many feasibility studies, that having one facility for gender-specific needs for females would be the ideal situation. So, they took the taxpayer's money of about $50 million and they built the facility in Chicopee. It only made sense that, now they wouldn't be shortchanged, they would have more freedom of movement, they would have more specific services geared toward the female population provided to them, more opportunity for work-release programs and jobs inside the facility with the so-called Prison Industries. All things we couldn't provide because we were so male-dominated here.
This jail was built, back in 2001, to house both. But corrections has evolved over the last 20 years. Even though this jail was built in the early 2000s, it only took about seven or eight years before they realized the women were not getting the equal opportunity as the men.
Question: There has been significant back and forth on this issue between you and your opponent, Alf Barbalunga, in debates and candidate forums. What do you think would be the short and long-term consequences of his plan to bring those inmates back?
Bowler: The problem we have is both male and female population, these individuals coming into our facilities are coming in sicker than they were 10 or 12 years ago because of the mental health crisis and the opiate crisis. Those two coincide; they go together. That's where a lot of our resources are being spent, nowadays.
So I certainly see a huge difference if we brought the females back here. We don't have those services. Out mental health and our health care, right now, are struggling here in Berkshire County to find people to work. We have a smaller population than the Hampden County area, they have bigger population to draw from for people to work in those fields and provide those services. We have no long-term residential care for substance abuse disorder for females. Even if they were to come back here, if they needed to go to a long-term residential facility, they would have to be shipped back out and go somewhere in either Worcester, Franklin, Hampshire or Hampden County, because we don't have those services here.
We are going to utilize our Second Street Second Chance program to its fullest with our female population, them coming back and being reintegrated into the community.
Question: The $20 million budget for the House of Corrections has been another topic frequently mentioned in the debates. You've said about 87 percent of that goes toward salaries. How do you prioritize the remaining 13 percent?
Bowler: It's called money management. It's a true testament to the staff that I have in my administration. Obviously, it takes a lot to run this facility, just to operate it. But we've done our best to save dollars and cents, where we could. That's why, several years ago, we went to green energy up here and changed every light bulb in this facility, inside and outside, was changed to LEDs. We put the solar field up in the back, we put a thermal solar system in the ground for our water, with a new computerized boiler system.
It's just kind of being proactive, so we cut costs wherever we can and continue to operate. We get programs here that are funded by grants. And a testament to my administration is we've never fallen outside the parameters of our budget. We are given a certain dollar amount that we can utilize. And that money is given to us and allocated by the house of representatives, the senate and administration and finance in the governor's office, who scrutinize our budget every year. Based on our past spending is what they give us for the following year.
Question: What is an issue or something else you feel has not been discussed enough throughout the campaign that you want voters to know?
Bowler: One thing I am extremely proud of that, and I think voters should know this, is the incredibly talented individuals who work in this facility. I am extremely proud of them, each and every one of them. Everybody here has something to offer to this office and to this community. I guess it's a real comfort to me, and I feel very blessed when you have individuals that share the same vision and have the same passion as you do for your community.
Everybody in this facility loves this community, that's why we're all here. And we want a stronger, healthier and safer community. I think the voters really need to understand that there's such great work that comes out of this office from the incredibly talented group of individuals that work here, and the voters should be extremely proud of this office and the dedicated and committed work they do to create a quality of life each and every one of us deserve.
The other thing they should feel very comfortable and safe with is when we talk about emergency services. Our dispatch center that we have up here. The work we've done with the 911 commission to grow this operation up here and to be able to handle any situation that comes down the road. We have the capabilities, if somebody loses communications, that we have the capabilities to build that out and respond in a moment's notice.
Question: In a previous debate, you mentioned your support for Timothy Shugrue's district attorney campaign but said you would still continue to support incumbent Andrea Harrington if re-elected. What, in your opinion, makes Shugrue a good candidate for district attorney of Berkshire County?
Bowler: As a public servant or as an elected official; and I said this when I supported Paul Caccaviello in his race against DA Harrington. I've done this with other mayors in North Adams and Pittsfield, as well. Mayor Tyer and I have always been on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but as a public servant and elected official, I will always do what is right for this office and work with whoever is the other elected official, whether they were my preference or not. That's how this community works, that's how it should work; personalities should be set aside, and the community comes first.
Tim Shugrue and I have known each other since junior high school. We were classmates; we were athletes together. I got into law enforcement in 1985, and he started his career right around the same time. I remember when he was at the DA's office. And when I was a police officer, he was down in Hampden County. And then he started the Kid's Place here and then became a very prominent defense attorney. He has the experience.