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Al Bianchi, assistant deputy superintendent for programming with the Berkshire County sheriff's office, speaks at the November meeting of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.

Coalition Forums Tackle Different Aspect of Addiction Epidemic

By Rebecca DravisiBerkshires Staff
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'Faces' debuted in 2016. At the December forum of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, the sequel, 'Voices for Recovery,' will be screened.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — On Friday, Dec. 8, in place of its regular monthly forum, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition will host a screening of a new film about how the community has responded to the local epidemic of addiction.

At the coalition's November forum on Nov. 17, participants heard about a different aspect of the addiction issue: law enforcement. The issues are intertwined because, according to Al Bianchi, assistant deputy superintendent for programming with the Berkshire County sheriff's office, 90 percent of the people who come through the local jail program are there for drug-related offenses.

The topic of addiction was identified as one that residents wanted to address during the Coalition's Needs Assessment Forum in September, leading to the conversation with Bianchi and Frank Busener, a reintegration specialist, in November and the screening of "Voices for Recovery: Building a Recovery Community" at the December forum.

The film, which can be previewed here, was commissioned by the Coalition and produced by local videographer Joe Aidonidis. It features different perspectives on how our community has responded to the local epidemic of addiction. Following the film, a panel will discuss resources available in Northern Berkshire County and what other resources are needed. Panelists will include the Brien Center's medical director, Dr. Jennifer Michaels, as well the Brien Center's division director of Adult and Family Services Megan Wroldson, Learn to Cope's Senior Regional Manager Marcy Julian, North Adams Ambulance Assistant Chief Amalio Jusino, the Berkshire Transition Network Recovery Coach Collin Woods, and Sarah DeJesus from the Tapestry Syringe Access Program in North Adams.

"This is a sequel to last year's film 'Faces: Five Voices from One Community,' which focused on personal stories around addiction and recovery," said Wendy Penner, the Coalition's director of prevention and wellness. "In this new film, we hear the voices of many community members as they address what is needed to build a recovery community in our region. The film, along with the panel discussion, will highlight our progress as a region, as well as the remaining challenges and gaps."

The December forum will be held at the North Adams MoviePlex from 10 a.m. to noon. Despite the location change, the format of the forum will remain the same: there will be introductions, announcements, a table for flyers, and popcorn.

The November forum drew around 65 guests in the usual location in First Baptist Church. Coalition Executive Director Amber Besaw introduced the topic and guests by encouraging residents to take a tour of the jail facilities in Pittsfield.

"What you see and what you learn … kind of opens up your eyes a little," she said.

Bianchi and Busener attempted to open the eyes of the Coalition forum attendees, not only with startling statistics like the 90 percent figure but also with heartbreaking anecdotes like the father who begged for help after his son and his girlfriend were found overdosing, were revived, arrested and then released, and then subsequently disappeared.

"Here we have two vulnerable kids released," Bianchi said. "We know for sure he's going to be looking for drugs."

But once they are into the jail system, Bianchi said, help is available. He explained the intake process when someone is arrested and held awaiting trial as well as those people who are sentenced to time in the jail.

"By law, we have to keep them separated by sight and sound," he said.

In both cases, however, rehabilitation -- the "correction" part of the House of Correction - starts in the first 24 hours a person enters the system, a time period Bianchi said is "crucial." Every person gets a complete medical examination, a mental health assessment, a look at his criminal history and a personal interview.

"We know a lot about that person before they leave that intake area," Bianchi said. "We spend a lot of time and effort when they first come in."

For those who are sentenced to time in the jail -- typically only up to two years, though those sentenced to concurrent sentences can stay longer -- they have a "service plan" that sets goals to move from a "maximum security inmate" -- which every inmate starts as -- up the ladder potentially to work release programs. All inmates work in the kitchen, which Bianchi said was "enormous," and there are various program available to inmates, including education, addiction rehabilitation and mental health counseling.

In fact, Bianchi said, one of those new rehab programs has seen amazing success: Of 114 inmates who completed it last year, in the program's first year, only 14 have ended up back in the jail system.

"That success rate is tremendous," he said.

Bianchi shared an example of a young man incarcerated on a drug-related offense who has "born into" the lifestyle but is trying to change his life while in jail, earning his HiSet high school equivalency degree and getting clean.

"This only thing that's changed is that he's had time to think," said Bianchi, who said this man is also making strides to get to know his young daughter. "He's changing his life. That's rewarding."

The goal, of course, is to have people substance-free when they are released, and then to help them reintegrate back into society, and that's where Busener steps in. He said his job is all about building relationships in the community so inmates can succeed outside of jail after serving their time.

"I go bang on doors and talk to people face to face," he said. "There's so many talented people in jail … We're looking to someone to give them a break."

Busener said it's the community's responsibility to help these individuals -- there are currently 219 men in the Berkshire County jail (women are sent to a facility in Chicopee) -- find a path back to success. He shared that he himself is a convinced felon, so he knows the struggle to reintegrate into society.

"It's our community. It's our responsibility. These are our people. They're me," he said. "They tell themselves a lot of time they can't. Shame keeps them isolated."

North Adams Mayor-elect Thomas Bernard summed up the conversation at the November forum by agreeing that these are "vital, critical issues" and that it's important the community treat people as people, even if they are coming off a jail sentence.

"If we're working together … that's what's going to make the community stronger," he said.


Tags: addiction,   addiction recovery,   berkshire county sheriff's office,   NBCC,   opiods,   substance abuse,   

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