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Berkshire County Sheriff candidates debate shipping female inmates to Chicopee, defend records in forum ahead of primary

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Josh Landes
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Sheriff Tom Bowler (top left), Chief Probation Officer of the Southern Berkshire District Court Alf Barbalunga (top right), and moderator Kamaar Taliaferro of the Berkshire County NAACP Chapter.

At Wednesday night’s Berkshire County NAACP chapter meeting, the two candidates running for sheriff in the September 6th Democratic primary faced off on a number of issues.

The virtual forum featured incumbent Sheriff Tom Bowler and challenger Chief Probation Officer of the Southern Berkshire District Court Alf Barbalunga. They exchanged verbal blows and answered audience questions. One came from Meg Bossong.

“I am a former commissioner on the Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, and in 2019, the commission held a hearing with incarcerated women in the Western Mass Women's Correctional Facility, women from Berkshire County," she said. "Sheriff Bowler was there.”

Since 2014, incarcerated women from the Berkshires have been sent to await trial or serve out shorter sentences at the Western Mass Regional Women's Correctional Center in Chicopee, a facility run by the Hampden County Sheriff's Department.

“What we heard in that commission hearing is that the housing of women at the Western Mass Facility leads to a great deal of hardship for those women as well as their families, in terms of family separations, people's ability to visit," continued Bossong. "The explanation is that there's a lot more programming and a lot more facilities available at the Western Mass Facility. But the feedback from the folks we spoke to is that, on return to the community, there are very few services available for them in the county. They're often still having to travel to Springfield for various kinds of meetings and appointments.”

With that, Bossong posed a query to the two candidates:

“What are your plans about how to better serve women who are part of the incarcerated population, Berkshire County's incarcerated population?" she asked. "And do either of you have plans to return the housing of those folks to the Pittsfield facility?”

“Recently we have enhanced over the last two years, year and a half," responded Bowler. "We have Officer Lindsay Maynard, who is our correctional case officer or case manager, who is the one servicing the females with those wraparound services with the Chicopee center back here to the community. Those services have been enhanced quite a bit. We do understand that there has been a hardship at times for these individuals with their families. A lot of these individuals that have been incarcerated are homeless, they also 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. We intend to use the new initiative of the Second Street Second Chance that is available also for the women as well. So the wraparound services and the service providers that are going to be on hand at the Second Street facility will be available for these women as well as the males upon release. The one thing I want to mention too, also, is this past January, the women's Chicopee center has become a national model.”

“We were absolutely sold out in 2014," countered Barbalunga. "This serviced one person at the time: Sheriff Ashe out of Hampden County. And let me be crystal clear on the record: Sheriff Ashe is a legend among sheriffs. And he does, he did wonderful work, set up a wonderful office for Sheriff Cocchi. But that was good for one person and one community and one sheriff's office: Hampden County, simply that. Our women, who are always criminogenetically at a disadvantage, need their support services here. We have 21 million reasons, which is $21 million, to support them. They were shipped down. You can imagine what that looks like when it's a two and a half to three hour round trip. Their family, due to what I just said about demographics and economic disadvantages and racial disparity, can't visit them. We don't have any public transportation that's worthwhile out in Western Massachusetts, as you may agree. When the sheriff sent them down there, just an FYI, in 2011, there was a massive civil lawsuit with inappropriate behavior by correctional staff. They're videotaping women down there in compromising situations. He knew about it. Again, he has nothing to do with that. That's a Hampden County issue.”

Barbalunga, who has accused Bowler of overspending on administrative roles at the expense of inmates, questioned the sheriff’s claims that Berkshire County can’t provide incarcerated women with satisfactory services and resources.

“It was insulting to our clinical professionals here. Educational, substance use, job skills, that, basically it was explained, we don't have the horsepower here to service those females and women, we're going to send them down to Hampden County because only they have those experts," said the candidate. "I find it insulting. We have wonderful clinicians out here. Unfortunately, they weren't resourced out for this. We have the room, obviously. And we have the money.”

Barbalunga pledged to “bring our women back immediately.”

Bowler pushed back.

“The reason for the facility at Chicopee was not to fill Sheriff Ashe’s facility," said the sheriff. "It started in the mid-2000s when state legislators and the four Western Mass sheriffs at that time took a look through a number of feasibility studies that were taking place that this was the best way to fill the needs and service the needs of the female population in one located facility, okay. The legislators and the four Western Mass sheriffs are the ones who came up with this idea. It was the best idea to give the women the services that they need that are gender specific, gender specific for them. That's when the legislators appropriated $50 million to do this and build this facility. It wasn't until about 2012, the Berkshire section was completed. And in 2014, after another year long process of discussing how we were going to do this, it wasn't just a something, a slingshot. They weren't ripped out of this community. There was a long process of preparing those the females down to that facility.”

Meeting attendees weren’t only interested in hearing the candidates talk policy.

Susan Lyman, who identified herself as a longtime attorney in Berkshire County, set up her question by establishing with Barbalunga that he was first cousins once removed with former Sheriff Carmen Massimiano. Massimiano, who died in 2020, was the county’s longest-serving sheriff with a 32-year stint ending in 2010 when he declined to seek re-election. His departure was clouded by sexual assault allegations, which he denied.

“My big concern is the 1990 Boston Globe report having to do with patronage through the probation Commissioner John O'Brien at the time," said Lyman. "You know, in fact, that you were named in that report as someone who was a recipient of that political patronage. And in fact, Commissioner O'Brien was suspended pending that investigation. You're aware, I believe, of course, of the allegations against you, when you were a North Adams probation officer that you were failing to show for your job, that, in fact, a judge recommended that you be fired from your job. Another judge recommended that you be-

“Susan, is there a question in there?” asked moderator Helen Moon.

“Yes," continued Lyman. "That you'd be pushed for a reprimand and yet, three, nothing happened. And three years later, you were in fact promoted to be the chief probation officer in South County. Where are those allegations against you concerning your failure to show for the job, in fact, fiction or fact?”

“Number one, Jack O'Brien was the state commissioner official," responded Barbalunga. "He was prosecuted civilly, excuse me, criminally at the state level and the federal level. Let's get full context, Sue. He was found not guilty at the state and federal level. That's the first thing, so anybody in this audience knows that. Secondly, in that situation in North Adams, I had basically the equivalent of an NDA while I'm an active employee. Now, I'm not an active employee.”

Barbalunga said he was never disciplined for his conduct while working in North Adams from 1997 to 1999.

“I was never terminated," he said. "I was allowed to transfer to any office of my choosing, and I chose Berkshire Juvenile Court. My three supervisors there, the chief probation officer, a quasi-supervisor, the clerk magistrate, and the presiding judge, all said independently after 13 months of service there I was one of the best employees they've ever come across. And it's really a tale of this, Susan, which you may appreciate- It was an 82-year-old manager, supervisor, my boss, getting abused in a political climate by a judge who wanted him out. And it was my boss from the commissioner's office saying, don't tolerate this. And it was a question sort of me stepping up and doing the right thing, and me being somewhat punished for it and being put through the grinder.”

Barbalunga promised that his campaign would address the situation in detail over the course of the summer, but contends any flak from his time in North Adams is political reprisal.

“I'm proud of that time period," said Barbalunga. "If I could go back, were there any missteps? Perhaps, as a 25-year-old, but I did the right thing. It was uncomfortable. And there's a reason why I wasn't terminated, or there's no discipline levied.”

The often testy “Know Your Sheriff” forum often lapsed into a debate as Bowler and Barbalunga dug into each other while answering questions about immigration enforcement, how to best use the office’s budget, outreach to the county’s Latino population, and more.

The forum was held by the Berkshire County Chapter of the NAACP with the League of Women Voters of Central Berkshire County and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Barbalunga has pledged to serve a maximum of two terms as he runs to become only the county’s 3rd sheriff in 44 years. Bowler has served two six-year terms. The Democratic primary is September 6th.

You can hear the forum here:

NAACP SHERIFF FORUM 7-6-22 FOR WEB.mp3

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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