September 8, 2013

Massachusetts inmates have a transitional place to go

The Robbins Inn program provides stable housing for men and women who want to change their lives.

By JIM THERRIEN The Berkshire Eagle

PITTSFIELD, Mass. - Not all inmates at the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction will turn their life around after they've served their time; that's what the statistics say, loud and clear.

Some, though, demonstrate a will to change, no matter the odds. For those, jail officials say, there is the Robbins Inn Transitional Program.

"In jail, this was the first time I'd ever been in trouble," said Greg Wood, 40, who recently completed a year at the Robbins Inn.

While serving 10 months at the House of Correction, "I took a hard look at myself and how I ended up there," Wood said. "I'm getting older, and I've had trouble with drugs and alcohol. I said, 'I'm tired of living this way.'"

According to Jason Cuyler, the re-entry case manager at the jail, the attitude and efforts Wood and other inmates display during their incarceration is what the transitional program looks for. Each man or woman has a service plan while in jail, he said, providing a record of behavior and progress toward personal or treatment goals during their term.

"They have to meet benchmarks here to be considered," Cuyler said.

Almost every inmate -- the facility has about 300 at a given time -- participates in work programs, group or one-on-one counseling sessions, educational or other programs, he said, and progress is assessed every 60 days.

"They are screened very thoroughly," he said of those in the Robbins Inn program. "We are not placing violent offenders or sex offenders, and we also see if they get along well with one another."

In most cases, Cuyler said, drugs and alcohol have played a major role in the inmate's criminal behavior -- as it does with at least 88 percent of all inmates.

While in the facility -- located in two houses -- they are free to come and go. However, they continue to participate in any substance abuse treatment programs they began while in the jail, and must adhere to details of a personalized pact they sign upon entering the program.

Other requirements are to be employed, pay rent to the program and volunteer at the Christian Center, which owns the multiunit dwellings.

The houses are located next to the Christian Center, which acquired them a number of years ago. The nonprofit service organization collaborates with the jail in providing meals and other services to the inmates.

"Jason and I had talked about what we could do," said Ellen Merritt, executive director of the Christian Center. "Stable housing is paramount in helping to break the cycle of recidivism."

The center provides meals, a food pantry, a free store with donated items and space for regular meetings involving those in the program, Merritt said, as well as opportunities for the participants to volunteer and give back to the community.

She said almost all of the funding for the transitional program comes from private donations and through the work of inmates in preparing the two houses for use.

Mark Massaro, treatment manager at the jail, said there now are five men in one house and one woman in the other, and the plan is to renovate more units in the fall.

"The goal," he said, "is to provide inmates with as many tools as possible to become productive members of the community."

Former inmate William "Willie" Simpson has been at the facility since mid-May. He said that like others in the jail, he sees the program as a great chance to change his life.

"I worked in the kitchen at the jail, kept my nose clean," Simpson said, adding that he served a year and earned some time off his sentence. And now, at 58, he said, "I decided I can't do this anymore."

Massaro said the program provides structure but also freedom At the jail, he added, "the word is out. They are buying into it. A lot of them want to go there."

 

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