Former Pittsfield jail opens its doors to the homeless


PITTSFIELD, Mass. (NEWS10) — With the weather getting colder, Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler is taking an unconventional approach in helping the homeless by turning the old jail into a temporary drop-in center.

The Pittsfield Jail on Second Street hasn’t housed an inmate in nearly 20 years, but now the Sheriff’s Office is putting the bars behind them and opening up what used to be the visitation room to the homeless.

With the metal bars and barbed wire, there’s no mistaking what this building once was.

“You can feel the history,” said Sheriff Bowler.

He and Berkshire County Jail Superintendent Jack Quinn walked the halls as corrections officers in the 1980s.

“They’re 6 feet by 10 feet, so with two people in there, I can touch wall to wall,” said Superintendent Quinn, as he stood inside one of the old cells.

The jail once housed 180 inmates, but this past Friday and Saturday, about 20 people entered voluntarily. They didn’t stay in the cells, though.

“We had the TV going, we had chairs and tables set up trying to make it comfortable for them,” said Sheriff Bowler.

It started with deputies visiting the homeless, offering them supplies and services, but with cooling temperatures and limited space at other shelters, Sheriff Bowler invited them in out of the elements.

“Kind of get refreshed, get cleaned up and get some other supplies if they need it, and at that time, we take advantage of them being here to offer them some services,” he said.

The jail, built after the Civil War, is state owned, and its occupancy bars it from being a shelter. Instead, it’s a drop-in center staffed by the Sheriff’s Office with supplies provided by the community.

“Wool socks, jackets, blankets, pillows – just those things to make their lives a little bit more comfortable,” he said.

But there’s no room in the Sheriff’s Office budget to run a drop-in center, so its future is uncertain, but its purpose is clear.

“For an individual out there to know that someone else cares is important,” said Superintendent Jack Quinn

If the walls could talk, you’d hear about three hangings, high profile inmates, even a few escapes, but soon, they’ll tell a new story.

“I guess the best way to put it, is that what used to be a place of despair is now a place of hope,” said Superintendent Quinn.

There are no official plans for the future of the drop-in center. Members of the Sheriff’s Office are meeting with service providers this week to see if multiple agencies can work together to find a solution.  

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