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Incumbent Thomas Bowler, left, and challenger Alf Barbalunga meet in a primary debate at the Berkshire Athenaeum on Monday night.

Bowler and Barbulunga Trade Jabs in Primary Sheriff Debate

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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The debate was sponsored by PCTV and iBerkshires.com. 

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire Athenaeum was filled with about 100 people on Monday to watch Berkshire County Sheriff candidates Tom Bowler and Alf Barbulunga face off on community issues.

The event was hosted by Pittsfield Community Television in partnership with iBerkshires.com.  It was moderated by PCTV's Coordinator Of Advancement & Community Production Bob Heck and featured iBerkshires Executive Editor Tammy Daniels, WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief Josh Landes, and Managing Editor of The Berkshire Edge Shaw Israel Izikson as panelists.

Watch the full debate here.

The candidates answered 12 questions with an option for rebuttal, were able to ask each other one question, and gave opening and closing statements. Topics ranged from participation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the Western Mass Regional Women's Corrections Center and the office's budget.

There were more than 20 audience members sporting T-shirts in support of Bowler, who is the incumbent, and the room applauded at some points during the conversation.

"I have the most incredibly talented group of professionals who share the same vision and passion as I do when it comes to our community and that's what we're talking about people is our community.  Inside the walls of our jail and outside. It's the same people. The more we can do for these people on the inside, the better we're going to make it on the outside," he said.

"We're going to continue to forge the relationships that we have, the community partnerships throughout the county, and we are going to continue getting those massive and wonderful 100 compliant accreditations from our major correctional organizations nationwide because of the staff that I have, the incredibly talented and dedicated group of people, that sea of blue that sits in front of me."

Barbalunga largely argued against the sheriff sending incarcerated females to the Chicopee facility, against his budget.

"The sheriff has the ability to make a huge difference in the life of first county residents, whether by enhancing public safety, and helping to reduce crime, fiscal stewardship, your tax dollars are reinvesting back into our community," he said.

"Every piece of the puzzle is important, most especially for our future generations that are raised in Berkshire County.  These people, these young men and women, they deserve the best care and services available right here in Berkshire County."

What are your stances on working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, especially in circumstances that could see Berkshire County residents deported?

Bowler said that as it stands now, ICE is notified of anyone that comes into the facility with a detainer and it is up to ICE to pick them up.  If an individual has an active case in the county and a detainer, ICE will be notified of the court date and if they are not picked up, the person will be released.

"We do not house detainees for ice and nor will we ever," he added.

Barbalunga said he would cooperate with the bare minimum but always comply with federal legislation.

An issue that has come up during this campaign is putting Berkshire County female inmates in Chicopee. Can you expand on how you think it can be done and bring them back or why it can't be?

Barbalunga said his answer is obvious: they can be brought back. This is a plan that he promised to start on Jan. 4.

"The reasons are pretty simple: at the end of the day, after talking to many people about this and taking their opinions strongly, separately equals not equal," he said. "That's the bottom line."

The candidate also argued that the travel times between the county and Chicopee were not conducive for the women or their children and claimed the infrastructure for substance use, education, and employment development was minimized.

He later stated that women are better when they're in close proximity to loved ones and resources.

Bowler speculated that there are many opinions on the situation and asked if anyone has gone down to speak to the women.

"Last Wednesday I went down to talk to those women," he said. "I found out firsthand about the services they're getting, the opportunities they have, and not one of them said they want to come back to Berkshire County."

He added that corrections have evolved a long way since the facility was built in 2001 and women do not get the equal opportunity that men do in the Cheshire Road facility.

"This is the best place for the females," Bowler rebutted.

"We didn't rip them out of Berkshire County, they have transportation issues that are being resolved and this is not that we don't want to do the job, it's what's right for the women. Not what's right for either one of us."

What current program of the house of corrections would you like to expand on?

Bowler said there are more than 60 programs in the facility for education, religion, behavior, and work but the COVID-19 pandemic hindered them. He explained that the house of corrections is proud of its work release program with several community partners that allows inmates to have money in their pocket for when they leave.

Barbalunga wants to take a look at the jail's hydroponics program, claiming that there are no jobs coming from it.  In his rebuttal, he said that he never heard how many people have jobs from the work release program.

"The aquaponics program serves two purposes: it allows candidates to go up and grow vegetables, have a sense of purpose gets them out of the everyday rush and hub-bub that goes on inside the housing units but it's also used for another purpose," Bowler replied.

"A lot of our inmates cannot go out into the community because of their charges. They can't go off the ground and they can't go out to do community service work or work release programs. This gives them an opportunity to develop a work ethic, get out in fresh air and feel good about themselves and make them feel as though they have a sense of purpose and community."

What are your thoughts on the DA's investigation of the police killing of Miguel Estrella this March and what does it say about criminal justice in Berkshire County?

Both agreed that the investigation was thorough and that it was a tragedy for both the Estrella family and the police.


"Either decision, she'd going to lose votes," Barbalunga said.

"It did not affect her at all. She did her job. I think she did it well. I think at the end of the day, a horrible horrible situation but that was the right call."

You have differing opinions on the use of medically assisted treatment for people addicted to substances that are in the house of corrections. Can you explain why your policy is or would be more successful and what, if any, responsibility the HOC has to the addicted inmates transitioning back into the community?

Bowler explained that in the past few years, he changed his mind from "so-called abstinence" to medication-assisted treatment.

"Keeping in mind that for several years, we've always given medications assisted treatment. Whenever somebody came in and had substance use disorder, there was no cold turkey, so to speak, treatment," he explained.

"We always medicated those individuals to curb their cravings and their urges."

He added that as time went on, the office educated themselves, changed their minds, and it was a federal case law that said they were mandated to provide it.

Barbalunga said it wasn't a "medical journey or medical expertise" that made the sheriff change his mind but a federal lawsuit and mandate.

"There are different tools in his toolbox for how to treat inmates and detainees when they're incarcerated," he added. "And Tom and the staff are using the bare minimum against medical advice from physicians that were inside. So again, technically, he did come around. It was due to a statutory provision and also never come through using the full options at his disposal."

Bowler said that once the mandate came out, his office was the first in line to go through the process of getting the federal license through the Department of Public Health to get the Methadone to administer.

"It's amazing how someone who doesn't work at the facility knows so much about it and how much we do with our medically assisted treatment," he said.

You have about a $20 million budget. What are your priorities if you have limited funds and what can you do to serve the people that you are responsible for? How can you show more transparency on what's being done?

Bowler said transparency is already there because the budget is on the state website. He added that 85 to 87 percent of the budget is for salaries and said the House of Representatives, the state Senate, and the Administration & Finance office allocate its funds.

"It's under great scrutiny and sure, we'd love to have more. I have a fellow Sheriff across the state with the same size facilities I have, he has a $10 million more budget than I do. I'd love to have $10 million because then we can do so much more in the community," Bowler said.

"So we're going to continue doing what we're doing. We always do cost savings. And keep this in mind: never once since I've been in office, and for several years prior, do we ever overstep the boundaries of our budget. We're always following the parameters of a budget."

Barbalunga said the 87 percent salary metric is a problem because there are "more positions and less work output."

"2011 you had eight executive leadership team members. 2022 you have 14, you have 130 inmates, you have no women, you had COVID, you had no programming, no rehabilitation for a while," he said.

Bowler said there are four or five individuals doing community service programs and that the work release program is coming back.

Barbalunga responded by saying that COVID is a "very serious health issue across the country but also not an excuse to shut down operations."

"You don't stop doing the job just because of this pandemic, you find better ways to do it," he said, adding that Bowler could have more say in budget line items by not creating jobs.

Following a debate between the two candidates last week, Second Street Second Chances Director Jason Cuyler posted on social media saying he was upset to find out about Barbalunga's alleged comments insinuating that he was only in his position because he is Black. Barbalunga was asked about this during Monday's debate.

Barbalunga said he does not go on Facebook and was unsure about the accusation, first thinking that it was referring to something that was said about Bowler's wife.  

Both he and Cuyler acknowledged that they have known each other for a long time, with Barbalunga describing him as a rock star. Barbalunga said he has been on the sheriff about hiring more people of color and insinuated that Cuyler's salary is not as high as his white coworkers.

Bowler said that was "disgusting" and did not respond.  

"Just let the record reflect, at the Planet Valenti debate I did not bring up Jason Cuyler's name,  Tom Bowler did. This debate I did not bring up Jason Cuyler's name, Josh Landes did," Barbalunga replied.  

"I thought we're talking about the sheriff's wife, I stick behind my comments. Jason should make a lot more money."

How would you improve the relationship between the sheriff's office and the community? What steps would you take for community outreach?

Bowler said the office has already done that. He detailed the office's medically tailored meal program, post-incarceration services at Second Street Second Chances, and its collaboration with multiple community entities.

Barbalunga criticized the meal program by saying that it doesn't need to be housed at the Second Street facility and said that the person who runs the program doesn't need a salary of $70,000.


Tags: debate,   election 2022,   sheriff,   


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