Bowler: Jail Prepared for Virus, Inmate Release a Bigger Risk
Sheriff Bowler joined us on Slater & Marjo in the Morning today to discuss his own battle with COVID-19, but also gave an update on how the Berkshire County House of Corrections is handling the pandemic.
After testing positive for COVID-19 over a month ago, Sheriff Bowler dealt with a serious case of the virus, suffering from almost every possible symptom including high fever, sore throat, body aches, stomach issues, and debilitating fatigue that "took him right off his feet". Luckily, the Sheriff never dealt with respiratory issues, although he was hospitalized for treatment of dehydration. Bowler praised the staff at Berkshire Medical citing the excellent care he received. A lingering cough remains, but he is happy to be on the mend and hopes to be back at his office working full time soon.
While on the show, Sheriff Bowler addressed what he believes are misconceptions surrounding the Berkshire County House of Corrections. As the coronavirus pandemic began to unfold, there were concerns raised about the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails where large groups of people are confined to one building. The concerns prompted some, including Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington, to advocate for the possible release of some inmates in order to mitigate threats of an internal outbreak, a measure which the Supreme Judicial Committee approved.
However, Sheriff Bowler disagreed with these concerns under the belief that it's a bigger risk to release inmates. Concerns such as overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and a lack of proper health care within the facility, which had all been cited by advocates for early release, are simply non-existent at Berkshire County's jail, according to Bowler.
Our jails in Massachusetts are not overcrowded, we are 50th in the country when it comes to incarceration. Just for instance, our population over the last ten years has dropped significantly
When Bowler first ran for the office in 2010 the Berkshire County House of Corrections facility had over 400 inmates. As of about a month ago, the same facility was home to just under 200. Bowler said that his department took steps to ensure the safety of staff and inmates as soon as it was apparent the virus would become a threat in Massachusetts.
I want the public to know that we took very significant and very proactive, aggressive measures to minimize the risk of staff and inmates from getting the virus, as well as the ability to properly treat any inmate who may come into contact with the virus. We instituted many vigorous cleaning protocols on every shift, every day.
In addition, Bowler says every inmate has their own cell, their own soap, their own toilet to use. Steps have been taken to ensure that every inmate can easily adhear to proper social distancing.
Sheriff Bowler almost immediately canceled visits for inmates, well before the state forced them to, knowing that folks coming in from the outside would pose the biggest threat of the virus reaching the population. Acknowledging the fact the inmates need to be able to talk to their families, each received a $50 phone card from the Sheriff's office as well as two free phone calls a week from the phone service provider. Work release, outside service work crews, and any programs that could expose an inmate to the virus from the public were suspended as well.
Bowler also went on the praise in house medical staff, which includes a physician, a nurse practitioner, and a director of nursing who has ten years of emergency room experience included in her 34-year career. The department also includes a health authority who has been with jail for 20 years and serves as a lead auditor for the National Commission of Correctional Healthcare.
Bowler's touting of the facilities preparedness can be backed up by the fact that as of today, the Berkshire County House of Corrections has had zero inmates test positive for COVID-19. While four staff members have tested positive, steps were taken swiftly enough to prevent further spread.
As far as the approval of early release for some prisoners, Bowler says that he and other sheriffs throughout Massachusetts believe its a recipe for disaster.
To think that we don't have adequate medical care, or that our place is unsanitary is just totally, totally false... Letting people out early, taking away their services that we're providing to them on a daily basis, to throw them back out on the street to an environment that's contaminated is so far worse, and it's going to create more harm to those individuals...We know individuals are going to relapse because of this, and they're going to re-offend because of this. It's not fair to them, and it's not fair to the community.