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Barbalunga, Bowler butt heads again in latest Berkshire County Sheriff debate

A green awning with a sheriff's badge logo is in front of a beige building under a blue sky
Josh Landes
The Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

With less than a month until the Massachusetts Democratic primary, the two candidates running for Berkshire County Sheriff once again met to exchange barbs and talk policy Monday.

The event, held by local blogger Dan Valenti, pitted two-term Sheriff Tom Bowler against challenger Alf Barbalunga, the Chief Probation Officer of the Southern Berkshire District.

Though the chaotic debate often veered into personal attacks, some policy discussion made its way through the static.

A major issue that separates Barbalunga and Bowler concerns Berkshire women being detained at the Western Mass Regional Women's Correctional Center in Chicopee, about an hour’s drive from Berkshire County’s largest community of Pittsfield. While Barbalunga says there’s space for them in the county, Bowler says they’re being better served in Chicopee.

“That’s the last thing they need, is to be back with their families," said Bowler. "They've been separated from their families. [Massachusetts Department of Children and Families] has had their children, they've had them for a long period of time. DCF is not going to put a child and traumatize them time and time again while these parents, these individuals fail, fail, fail. It's a long-term process to bring somebody back into the community or back into their families.”

Barbalunga claimed that Berkshire sheriff’s office staff said that Bowler wanted the women out of his care simply because moving them required less work.

“Women are higher demand clientele," said Barbalunga. "We have the same amount of money, we prefer not to deal with them. And they are higher demand clientele, I'm not dismissing that whatsoever. You worked out a deal with your friend in Hampden County to release the women down there, whether it's 12 women, 14 women, whatever it is, now they're gone. No thought process to the families traveling down there whatsoever. Three hours round trip for sure. No thought process to different types of onboarding, getting through the visit, strip searches, things like that. No thought process on pending lawsuits down there, with how operations were being run, and you still sent our women down there. No thought process of telephone calls, collect call rates.”

Bowler denied this, saying the process that resulted in Berkshire women being held in Hampden County began in the mid-2000s.

“It started with the legislature and it started with the four previous Western Mass sheriffs," he said. "All were housing women in their same facility, all saw the issues and challenges they faced every single day with sight, sound and separate with the male and female inmates. [They] started doing feasibility studies not only on building the facility itself, but for program treatment and education. It was determined through the legislature and the four Western Mass sheriffs that the best opportunity for these women to succeed was to have gender-specific needs and programs designed specifically for them in one location, sight, sound and separate from the men. That's why the legislation appropriated $50 million to build this facility.”

Barbalunga also accused Bowler of nepotism.

“These people that have no experience whatsoever in corrections, Tom brings them over on the tail end of their career," he said. "So it's a double whammy. You get people coming inbound with no expertise whatsoever- And by the way, make sure you throw in cars, fuel cards for no statutory reason for them to be driving the cars around. And what happens also, Dan is, it's a systemic toxicity, because all these people that have been working their whole career to ascend to these promotional opportunities just got wiped out. And to make it even worse, the triangle part of this, they're all white males.”

Bowler, while alluding to the late former Sheriff Carmen Massimiano, defended his team.

“I have a group of individuals," he said. "First of all, it started off when I came in. They were hired by your cousin, the previous sheriff. Okay? He started out with this administrative staff. I walked in there, and I recognized their value, and I kept them on. And as time went on, they got promoted to various positions."

When asked about their allegiances in the parallel District Attorney Democratic primary between incumbent Andrea Harrington and Pittsfield attorney Timothy Shugrue, Barbalunga – who worked on Shugrue’s 2004 DA campaign – said he would not make an endorsement while acknowledging he supported Harrington in 2018. Bowler, who supported Harrington’s opponents in the 2018 election, described his philosophy as totally different from hers and that he prefers Shugrue’s.

Barbalunga and Bowler will next face off in Monday night’s debate on Pittsfield Community Television. Primary day is September 6th.

You can find the full debate here.

The original version of this story inaccurately stated that Berkshire County Sheriff candidate Alf Barbalunga endorsed incumbent Andrea Harrington in the 2022 Democratic primary for District Attorney. Barbalunga supported Harrington’s 2018 campaign and said that he would support her while in office, but did not say he would be voting for her in the election.

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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