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College of Saint Rose in Albany makes closure official

Berkshire Sheriff Back At Work After COVID-19 Bout

A white man with glasses sits behind a wooden desk in an office
Josh Landes
Sheriff Thomas Bowler in his office, November 2018

Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler has recovered from COVID-19 and is back at work in the House of Corrections.

Bowler, 60, tested positive for coronavirus after displaying symptoms like a sore throat, body ache, and a fever in late March. His recovery kept him out of the office for most of April, with Superintendent Jack Quinn running things in his absence. Now, the sheriff is back behind his desk full-time at the House of Corrections in Pittsfield on its compound adjacent to the Berkshire Mall campus.

Bowler isn’t the only one to come down with the sickness.

“The three other staff, two of them I didn’t have contact with, and one of them, we had contact only in passing," the sheriff told WAMC. "There was a couple police officers that had tested and we were in the same proximity. I can’t attribute to that.”

Bowler suspects the origin of his illness came closer to home.

“My daughter is the first one who exhibited the symptoms, and she exhibited those three or four days before me," he said. "And she also tested positive after I did.”

While none of the House of Corrections’ almost 150 inmates have tested positive for the virus, the sheriff says only a handful have actually received the tests.

“We’re following the CDC and the DPH’s guidelines, so we’re only testing those with symptoms,” he explained.

Bowler says his office got an early start on its response to the pandemic.

“A week before Charlie Baker, the governor, Charlie Baker ordered the state of emergency, we sat down with our inmate population and we told them that we were suspending the visits here in the jail," he told WAMC. "And we were doing that to protect them and to protect their families.”

Following an April ruling by the state Supreme Judicial Court, 27 inmates were freed from the House of Corrections in an effort to slow the spread of the virus in jails and prisons. Bowler said that within a day, some of those inmates ended up in the emergency room or were re-arrested.

“The normal social services, or the network, is already strained from dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic," he told WAMC. "We could all see that releasing inmates from this facility where they’re safe, they’re getting medical treatment, they’re following through on their treatment programs, they’re receiving a whole host of services, and you’re going to release them out into a community that is surging right now with COVID-19? Programs are limited because those agencies are strained with the pandemic. Every sheriff could tell that this was going to be a recipe for disaster.”

Bowler described the county’s inmates as unable to follow the rules of society.

“Do we really think that they’re going to follow the COVID rules once they leave here and wear masks and keep social distance?" asked the sheriff. "There’s a good possibility they’re not. So it was very disturbing to find out that some people with the judicial system were pushing to have people released.”

In the interview with WAMC, Bowler – a staunch believer in abstinence-only recovery from drug addiction – revealed that he now condones medically assisted treatments for inmates under his watch.

“I still believe in abstinence," he said. "I still think that that’s one of the safest ways, or one of the best ways to do this, to get off of a heroin addiction. But I also wouldn’t stop – if you had a family that sat in front of me – which, I’ve gone to the Learn To Cope meetings – and I’ve had families say to me, if it wasn’t for suboxone or methadone, my son or daughter or child or grandchild would be dead. Well, I can’t argue against that.”

While the facility does not have a license to distribute methadone, Bowler says one is not required to distribute suboxone.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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