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Pittsfield Police Advisory Committee Tours Jail
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
11:00AM / Tuesday, December 18, 2012
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The outside of the Berkshire County House of Corrections has cheery snowmen outside, but it's all business inside.

Sheriff Thomas Bowler answers questions from the Police Advisory Committee about the jail's operations.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The entire Police Advisory Committee went to jail on Monday to see what a modern law enforcement facility needs.

The newly formed committee toured the Berkshire County House of Correction to both increase the members' understanding of the county's law enforcement and to see what a newer law enforcement building looks like as they set their sights on a new police station.

It took them two hours to tour what they described as a "really nice facility" featuring not only cells but an industrial kitchen, gymnasium, classrooms, laundry and administrative offices.

The House of Correction opened in 2001 and currently houses 267 inmates — 85 of whom are being held for trial — in eight separate housing units. Each housing unit can hold up to 72 inmates in 36 cells. Two units are for pre-trial inmates, one for women, four for convicted inmates and one is a "segregation unit" for those who misbehave or are a danger to the others.

Led by Sheriff Thomas Bowler, the committee saw the inside workings of an operation that costs $14.1 million per year and employs more than 180. They got close looks at security infrastructure such as the 132 cameras that can zoom in close enough to see the hands in inmates' card games, iris scanners and the 15-foot outside walls capped with razor-wire.

"This is a very labor-intensive operation," Bowler told the committee and added that it is a very "stressful" environment to work in every day.

The employees extend beyond guards to include teachers for instruction in General Educational Development diplomas, janitorial and graphic arts,  and nurses, counselors and locksmiths.  

The contrast is striking between the Police Department's holding cells and technology and the jail's. Police Lt. Kate O'Brien said she's seen suspects at the city lockup ask to go to the House of Correction because the facility is so much better.

That isn't to say the inmates are being "spoiled" with televisions, workout rooms and job training — it only took one look inside the cells to see that. The small two-person units are equipped with only a metal toilet and a small mattress on metal beds.

"You try to help the correctional officer by giving them stress relievers," Bowler explained of the "perks" of television and recreational time that are taken away if the inmates misbehave.

The committee was impressed with the operation but Bowler still has a wish list of improvements he'd like to see. The jail is in the process of getting a K9 unit to help stop the smuggling of drugs inside, and Bowler said he'd like to make family visits "no contact" because drugs and other items are exchanged during kissing and hugging visitors.

"You'd be  surprised at what people try to bring into the prison system," Bowler said, adding that cell phones are a commodity because the only other phones lines are recorded by staff.

Bowler said he also like to see the outside area that accesses the booking area be covered from the elements and, of course, have more staffing.

Committee members asked what it would take beyond staffing to turn it into a regional lockup; Bowler said it would require a whole new building. The committee asked questions along the tour about the structure itself but were mostly there to listen and see.

"This was very informative," Chairman Radcliffe Harewood said. "It was an opportunity to see a more modern facility."

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