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Program helps Mass. inmates find homes after jail

September 7, 2013

PITTSFIELD, Mass. (AP) — Not every inmate at the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction will turn his or her 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 off Robbins Avenue — 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 at 193 Robbins Ave., which owns the multi-unit 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 multi-unit houses for use.

The dwellings were renovated by inmates in the Community Service program at the House of Correction, according to Mark Massaro, treatment manager at the jail. The construction materials were donated.

He said there now are five men in one house and a woman in the other home, where the plan is to renovate more units in the fall.

“We have never had the opportunity to do this before,” Massaro said, crediting strong support from Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler in establishing the program. “He (Bowler) has been on board with this from day one.”

“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 the course of 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.”

Simpson said that in his youth he “missed the boat on golf and baseball,” having been a gifted athlete who once played in the Little League World Series. “But I didn’t stay in school,” he said. “I went with drugs and alcohol.”

He said he appreciates the connection to services, although he is living on his own, and the presence of the Christian Center next door. “What the center does in this neighborhood is invaluable,” Simpson said.

Both former inmates interviewed praised Cuyler, who meets with each on a regular basis, helps with finding employment and is a constant source for advice or support — especially during difficult times.

“He is amazing, an amazing person,” Wood said. “Any problem you have, he’s there.”

After he moves on from the facility, he said, “I will always have Jason Cuyler in my phone.”

Massaro said the program provides structure and support but also freedom for participants to learn to make good decisions. And participants are held accountable. Since the program began 18 months ago, he said, two were removed for infractions, such as failing to stay away from drugs or alcohol or failing to pay their modest rent.

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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