In a previous post I warned about what I call “fake” education; that is, education that drills students in self-blame and a sense of failure and that disguises the sources of power that perpetuate inequalities. My argument was NOT a call to eliminate access to educational programs until we perfect curricula and pedagogy, but rather a cautionary note based on conversations I’ve had with criminalized women in Boston over the past decade. Let me be clear, as one long-time educator wrote to me, “Without the commitment to access, any reform in the content or delivery of education won’t matter.”

Rev. Vivian Nixon, Executive Director of the College and Community Fellowship and Co-Founder of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, has kindly allowed me to re-post her insightful thoughts on these issues. You can read the full post here. I’ve re-printed excerpts below. I urge you to read the full article.

Let’s Get Real: Prison Is No Place for Elitism

“It’s incredibly important to pay close attention to quality education on the inside. Having been inside myself — a high school graduate stuck in a prison with no post-secondary options — I argue that any attempt to create broader access to programming would be welcomed by those who currently have no educational alternatives. …”

“It would be wonderful if everyone qualified for Bard Prison Initiative or other intense liberal arts programs, but we know that many will not. Those who do not qualify for a Bard-caliber program could easily do well in a less rigorous community college program. Furthermore, not everyone has an interest in the contemplative life. Some just want to learn how to be a Computer Technician or gain some other marketable skill because they feel it’s their best chance of escaping lifelong poverty.

“That option should be readily available. If one of education’s main concerns is helping students forge a sense of individuality, introspection and self-determination, then the choice to limit educational programs in prison as an attempt to “do what’s best for them” proves antithetical to our ultimate goals. Just as students on the outside participate in educational programs of all levels, incarcerated students should also have a wide range of options — every program should not be exclusive. While quality must not be ignored, we should agree on what we mean by “quality” and not confuse it for elitism. …”

“The practical role of education in helping those incarcerated escape the cycles of marginalization, crime and poverty is as large as its transformative ability to foster critical thought, self-reflection and a stronger sense of self for those in the classroom. When we account for the irrefutable correlation between lack of education and rates of imprisonment, we must take every opportunity we can to provide educational programming for those who need it most. That means a wide range of programs, broader financial aid eligibility and a persistent, long-term commitment to improving educational access for all.”

I’d like to thank the many friends and colleagues who commented on the “Knowledge is Power” post. Stay tuned for additional posts on this very important topic.

Expanding access to higher education has been in the news recently. First, the Obama administration announced a plan making state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell grants, arguing that education can play a role in facilitating post-release employment. Second, Hillary Clinton joined the other Democratic Party candidates in calling for substantial federal spending aimed at making college affordable, declaring that, “To raise wages, there is no better investment we can make than in education.”

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science,  “Ideally, a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds.” The devil, of course, is not so much as in the details as in the hands of those who have the power to shape institutions and enforce policies. In our far-from-ideal world, the follow-up sentence to the Association’s declaration probably should read something like this (my words): “In reality, most contemporary educational institutions and programs emphasize obedient classroom behavior, rote learning, standardized test-taking that validates only a narrow range of knowledge, self-blame for failure, and a few potentially marketable skills that will prepare future workers to contribute to the profits of private industry.”

The Boston-area criminalized women I have come to know have participated in myriad educational programs as school children and teenagers (where they entered the infamous school-to-prison pipeline) and as adults both inside and outside of prison (hardly an ideal setting for encouraging open-minded, critical thinking). Overwhelmingly, these educational programs share two aims: (1)To encourage the women to admit that they are flawed and diseased; (2)To push the women into the most low-paying job sectors.

Tonya, a Black woman in her mid-thirties recalls her education program in prison: “I felt that I couldn’t pass the GED so fuck it. I’m defective. I took it five times.” This sentiment is one that Tonya has repeated a number of times. For instance, a few years after I first met her she was thrilled to be accepted into a Culinary Arts training program arranged by a local homeless organization. But after a few weeks she complained, “I am not happy. We – the students – are just being used as cheap labor. We’re not learning anything. We spend the day chopping piles of meat and vegetables. They ‘pay’ us $8 an hour. We work 50 hours a week but they only pay us for 46 hours because it’s ‘education.’ The education part? We’re supposed to write a plan for a meal that we would cater. If I could cater a meal it would be soul food but the teacher wants us to make meals that white people like.” A few weeks after that conversation Tonya finished the program only to learn that in order to get a restaurant job she would need to pay $185 to obtain a “safe service” certificate.  She didn’t have the money. “I feel like a loser,” she said.
Tonya’s experience of being used as cheap labor in the guise of a training program is common. Other women I know have been “trained” by being handed a broom and sent off to clean offices or hotel rooms. Paid under minimum wage, they are let go when the “training” is over and replaced by other “trainees.” In many cases, these programs are required by drug court judges or by parole officers as proof of “rehabilitation.” As Tonya has learned the hard way, being sentenced to menial labor that does not pay a living wage is often the prelude or post-script to a prison sentence.

We like to say that “knowledge is power,” but, unfortunately, the thrust of a great deal of contemporary American education has less to do with helping students understand who actually holds the political and economic power in our grossly unequal society, and more to do with drilling students in the notion that they personally are responsible for their own failure to take control of their lives, make the “right” contacts, excel at exams, land jobs, and stay out of jail. That kind of “knowledge” disempowers; it obscures who profits from the status quo; and it keeps individuals focused on their own failures rather than on the structural conditions of poverty, racism and gendered violence that sentence the majority of Americans to be “losers”.

As new educational opportunities may be opening up for criminalized and for low income students, and as teachers and professors (like myself) prepare to go back to school, it’s a good time for educators to give some serious thought to what we actually are teaching our students. Are we merely telling them that ‘knowledge is power’ or are we clarifying that much of the knowledge we are imparting has been accumulated and validated by sources of power with vested interests in maintaining that power? Are we encouraging them to speak truth to power: to discover the truths that shape their lives, to identify who really does (and does not) hold the power in our world, and to speak loudly so that those in power will listen? If we are not doing these things, we are allowing our educational programs to add propellant to school-to-prison pipelines.

The ideas for this post grew out of the Education session at the Free Her conference organized by Families for Justice as Healing.

I’d like to thank expert educator Vivian Troen for helping me think through these issues.



During the first week of August 2015, newspapers reported that the White House is drafting an executive order requiring federal contractors to provide their employees with at least seven days of paid leave per year for illness or to care for family members. The notion that workers are are flesh-and-blood human beings who sometimes get sick, sometimes need to care for family members who are sick, and often cannot absorb the loss of salary while they are sick should be pretty self-evident. And, one would assume, acknowledgment of basic human rights should be sufficient reason to require employers to provide their workers with at least some paid sick leave. Yet, within days of reports of this seemingly modest policy move, industry leaders have made it clear that they will oppose this executive order in court; that they will do their best to dilute it’s provisions; and they will do their best to ensure that it applies to as few workers as possible.

Fortunately, despite harumphing out of Washington that paid sick leave would kill job growth, interfere with the free market and turn American workers into sniveling babies, a number of states have gone ahead and passed paid sick leave ballots or legislation. I’ve re-posted here an essay on the critical importance of paid sick leave that I wrote right after the 2014 elections. Continue reading

View of Boston in the fall from the 73 Tremont Street building.

feature image by Patricia Aridjis

“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” -Angela Davis

From the cushioned luxury of my university perch, I’ve spent a great deal of time and spilled a great deal of ink critiquing the institutional circuit of jails, rehab programs, detention facilities, drug courts, temporary housing and battered women’s and homeless shelters through which millions of poor, sick and suffering Americans cycle, often beginning in childhood and continuing for decades. I’ve argued for a paradigm shift away from policies that aim to “manage” individuals who are sick / addicted / criminal / poor / powerless to policies that address the structural violences of racism, environmental degradation, poverty, unregulated capitalism, sexism and other gross inequalities — the violences that give rise to a growing caste of Americans marked by prison and all-too-often doomed to life (and death) on the margins.

My job is comfortable. I unpack the problem, point to the need for systemic change, and then leave it up to others — for example, those work on the front lines in struggling communities — to come up with the immediate answers that their friends, neighbors, families, patients and clients need right now. However, I’ve been increasingly challenged by colleagues, friends and readers asking me: “Short of a revolution, what do you suggest we do?”

The reality is that revolutions take time. They’re the result of tireless grassroots efforts, community-building, and policy-lobbying. The people working on the front lines in struggling communities aren’t working independently of each other — nor are they necessarily working toward the kind of long-term paradigm shift we’re hoping for. In my experience, I’ve come across programs and policies that seek to alleviate the most immediate suffering while avoiding the structural oppressions that perpetuate that suffering. I’ve also come across programs and policies that mean well, but ultimately reinforce the system that makes them necessary in the first place. Real change is tedious, needs resources, and often has to fend off not only direct opposition but also counterproductive short-term alleviation. In this post, I’ve pulled together the best models that I’ve found.

I. Harm Reduction and Housing First

Living on the streets and in shelters makes people vulnerable to illness, abuse, violence and arrest. Secure housing is not a panacea, but it’s a necessary prerequisite for stable relationships, employment and health. In this era of the housing market, millions of Americans are priced out of the home ownership as well as the rental markets. While public and subsidized housing can be helpful, all-too-often these housing programs enforce rules that are unrealistic for the people most in need of them. I know women in the Boston area who have lost their public or subsidized housing because a boyfriend slept over, a relative staying at the apartment committed a crime, an ex-boyfriend created a scene by pounding on the door or — even worse — assaulting the woman, a teenage child was arrested and placed into juvenile detention, or the woman herself was seen drunk or high.

Secure housing, housing where breaking trivial rules or having overnight guests isn’t grounds for eviction, allows people to cook, eat, bathe, use the toilet, get dressed, sleep, rest, think, get organized and nurture relationships in some semblance of privacy and dignity.

While I’m not thrilled with the phrase, “low threshold housing,” initiatives such as the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance’s Home and Healthy for Good initiative offers a realistic and empathetic alternative (emphasis mine):

“The Housing First model represents a paradigm shift in the way chronic homelessness is addressed. Often in traditional housing programs, homeless individuals are expected to move forward through a linear service delivery system, with housing saved as a “reward” for individuals who are compliant with other requirements – such as maintaining sobriety or finding employment. However, homeless individuals struggle to meet these demands when they are also dealing with the challenges and instability of homelessness. Housing First represents a shift toward “low-threshold” housing, in which the barriers to housing have been removed. Housing First programs recognize that homeless individuals can more easily maintain their sobriety, find employment, and achieve other health and life goals when they have a permanent place to live. Housing First tenants live in leased, independent apartments or shared living arrangements that are integrated into the community. Tenants have access to a broad range of comprehensive community-based services, including medical and mental health care, substance abuse treatment, case management, vocational training and life skills training. However, participants are not required to participate in services – there are no compliance requirements in order to enter or stay in the program. By removing these barriers to housing, individuals are given an opportunity to deal with the complex health and life issues they face as tenants, rather than as clients of a prescribed system of care.

a low-income housing development in Chicago. Photo by Robert R. Gigliotti via Flickr

I’m also optimistic about initiatives like the Vera Institute’s Family Justice Program, which has partnered with the “New York City Housing Authority, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), and multiple nonprofit reentry service providers to develop, implement, and study a two-year pilot program that reunites 150 eligible formerly incarcerated individuals with their families in public housing while also providing them with case management services.”

II. Meaningful Work

Research demonstrates that engagement in productive activities reduces recidivism. While many Americans struggle to find jobs in this sluggish economy, unemployment among those with criminal records is as high as 50%. The criminalized and marginalized women I have worked with for the past decade rarely land jobs. As Tonya explains, “As soon as you [a potential employer] see me you don’t think ‘maybe she has skills.’ They just have stereotypes – ‘ghetto black.’” The jobs they are offered tend to be poorly paid and only temporary, without paths for advancement, and the work is often meaningless and demeaning. For example, at fast food restaurants, employees are yelled at on a regular basis, they can be fired for calling in sick, and they’re often punished with the most undesirable shifts or dangerous work stations. Many of the women I know report that their bosses “expect” sexual favors from “women like us,” and the men in their lives report that bosses often expect them to “hook them up” with drugs or prostitutes.

Full-time employment in the traditional, mainstream sense is simply unrealistic for many under-educated, chronically ill, marginalized or criminalized Americans. With that in mind, significant and long-term volunteer work can provide opportunities to develop new skills, form supportive social ties, contribute to a sense of worth and meaning in life (probably the best antidotes to substance abuse), and create safer communities. I tend to agree both with the Biblical aphorism that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” and with Holocaust survivor and philosopher Viktor Frankl that people are driven by a “striving to find meaning in one’s life,” and that it is this sense of meaning that enables people to overcome painful experiences.

Because criminalized men and women are unlikely to be hired in “regular” jobs, a program of volunteer positions should not consider itself a stepping stone to “regular” (that is, low wage, demeaning, and unstable) work. Rather, volunteer opportunities should include the potential for participants to move into positions of greater responsibility within the agency or facility over time. It is crucial that a program of volunteer work provide stipends for workers. A stipend indicates that work is valued, encourages long-term commitment to the volunteer position, and helps volunteers cover expenses such as transportation to work, rent, a telephone, and commodities including soap and diapers that are not covered by food stamps.

The majority of the Boston-area women with whom I work have, at various times, participated in programs that require them to engage in “fake” work such as repeatedly mopping the same stairwells. Yet there are true pressing needs for volunteer workers in many agencies that help the elderly, the disabled, the community and the environment. Nearly all of the women I know cite generosity, sociability and “helping other people” as their best character traits. Volunteer work can build on these character traits and help women develop a sense of purpose and self-esteem through helping others. The visible presence of people with felony convictions doing voluntary, effective community work can raise the overall status and reduce the stigma of ex-prisoners in the community. A study of a volunteer program for ex-prisoners in the UK found that, “Recognition by others, and the opportunity to relate as people of equal worth, had enabled these women to establish themselves in their own eyes, and in the eyes of others, as contributing and valued members of society” (Eaton, 1993, p. 101). To that end, the Sue Ryder Foundation in the UK encourages and trains prisoners and former prisoners as volunteers in the Foundation’s work with hospice and neurological care. A 2012 evaluation of the program pointed to the positive experiences of working in an environment in which everyone was treated equally, with dignity, and as valued members of a team engaged in important work.

Initiatives of this sort do not cost more than the currently popular dead-end job training programs, fill real needs of non-profit and social service agencies, and may even lead to paid work for some participants.

III. Activism, Advocacy and Community Building

Our entire culture, from television shows and movies to industries such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and fashion, already tells us that we’re not good enough; that it’s our fault that we aren’t what we see on screen. Pop-therapeutic culture sends the message that people who stay in abusive relationships “choose” to be victims. Health, wealth, and autonomy are valued above everything else. So it’s easy to see how people who suffer from illness, poverty, abuse and incarceration end up feeling isolated by society at large, especially after being told (directly and indirectly) that they’re “losers.” And nothing is more isolating than prison where, in order to survive, one learns not to trust anyone – not the guards, not the parole board, not the courts, and often — but certainly not always — not even other prisoners.

Many of the programs aimed at rehabilitating marginalized and criminalized Americans focus on encouraging them to “take responsibility” for their problems and condemn any hint of social or political analysis as “denial.” They place blame on the individual, compounding feelings of mental isolation. I am particularly concerned with the ubiquitous presence of twelve-step programs (“admit my powerlessness; turn myself over to a Higher Power; do an on-going moral inventory of my flaws”) and “rehabilitative” reading materials at prisons, rehab centers, homeless shelters and half-way houses.

Happily, there are a growing number of organizations that reject this model.

In San Francisco, the Center for Young Women’s Development has created Sisters Rising, a nine-month-long paid internship in which young women of color train to become community organizers and learn resume-building skills. “As community organizers, they learn about the systemic issues that have directly affected their lives, such as the fact that young women of color are disproportionately suspended from school, are far more likely to be murdered and experience intimate partner violence at greater rates than white girls and women. … Although the job is part-time, with most of the women in the program working 10 to 15 hours per week, many who go through the program end up becoming full-time employees at the center.”

Here in Boston, Families for Justice as Healing makes clear in its name that “healing” isn’t just about therapy or treatment. True healing can only come about in a just society. In my own interactions with the organization, I saw a group of formerly incarcerated women share their stories about mothering while in prison. In the course of the sharing, perspectives shifted from, “I’m a failure as a mother,” to, “We’ve all been put in situations that make it impossible for us to be effective mothers.” At the end of the session, each woman prepared testimony for a hearing in the state legislature on a bill providing community alternatives to incarceration for parents who are primary caregivers of their children. I came away from that session thinking about organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) – women who have experienced the unimaginable horror of losing a child, a horror from which they will never “recover.” These women found meaningful work in lobbying for policy changes to prevent more mothers from going through the same horror. When organizations such as the Center for Young Women’s Development or Families for Justice as Healing successfully promote policies that strengthen families and communities, they weaken the power of the institutional circuit and offer real alternatives to lives spent as institutional captives.

IV. Legislative and Policy Initiatives

There has been some talk lately of bi-partisan calls to overhaul the judicial and correctional systems. I admit that I am suspicious of politicians looking to reduce incarceration solely for economic motives and with no interest in reinvesting in communities that have been torn apart by the policies of the last three decades. This is a legitimate concern given the history of initiatives such as Clinton’s so-called “welfare reform,” the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Still, I do think that there are a number of initiatives that have reasonable chances of being adopted and that are unlikely to backfire.

The REDEEM Act (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment) introduced by Senators Cory Booker and Rand Paul calls for creating a federal pathway for sealing the records of convictions for nonviolent adults, as well as automatically sealing and in some cases expunging juvenile records. In addition, the REDEEM ACT proposes lifting the lifetime ban on SNAP (food stamps) and TANF (welfare) benefits for many non-violent drug offenders. These bans have been extraordinarily detrimental, as Cory Booker explains, “some of the most disadvantaged U.S. citizens, after release from jail, face impossible odds of supporting themselves and their families as they search for a job.” That, in turn, increases the chances of re-incarceration.

Bail reform is a second area in which there is currently a great deal of positive momentum. According to the Pre-Trial Justice Institute: (1) 6 in 10 people in jail in the U.S. are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of their charges. (2) Many of these unconvicted people are incarcerated because they are too poor to pay their bails of a few hundred dollars. (3) A person who spends as little as two or three days in jail is 40% more likely to commit a crime in the future even if they were innocent of the charge for which they were initially held. (4) Pretrial detention increases the chance of conviction, a sentence of incarceration and a longer sentence than for those who are released pretrial.

Bail reform legislation currently is under consideration in a number of states. In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Bail Fund and the Pretrial Working Group are advocating for SD1491/HD3156 Pretrial & Bail Reform, a bill that mandates the consultation of a validated risk assessment tool to help judges make informed release/detention decisions rather than allowing release/detention to be determined by the individual’s ability to pay cash bail.

It will take years and work and money and a whole lot of good luck to dismantle the prison industrial complex. But the groundwork has already been laid in communities around the country. And so, stepping outside of the ivory tower’s claims to impartiality and objectivity, I’m asking readers to donate time and money to support and strengthen that work. Most of it is difficult, underfunded, and at times dangerous. I’ve linked to a few organizations that I believe in and have come across in my work. If you want to help, I urge you to seek out local and national organizations, programs, and initiatives that are striving to bring positive, effective change to our systemic problems.

According to a June 30, 2015 article in the Gloucester Times, “Responding to a scourge of heroin and opioid addiction, the head of one of [Massachusetts] largest jails wants to build a detox unit to treat addicts awaiting court dates for minor, drug-related offenses. Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins is asking the state for permission — and money — to construct a 42-bed detox unit at the Middleton House of Corrections. ‘These are the people who are arrested for possession of drugs while committing quality-of-life crimes,’ Cousins said in an interview. ‘We need to get these people out of the jail cells and into treatment.’”

Jails and prisons are not optimal settings for providing drug treatment. The coercive nature of incarceration negates the possibility for individuals to be active participants in addressing their health issues. People may distrust the treatment provided in prison (often with good cause), or experience treatment as just one more hoop to jump through in order to get out.  Even in best case scenarios with willing participants and skillful providers, jail settings magnify the social and personal powerlessness that draw people into substance abuse in the first place.

Sheriff Cousin’s proposal is far from the best of scenarios. The jail-based detox unit he has called for is meant to house people who have not yet been tried; that is, people who have not faced a judge or jury – people who have not had their day in court. Not only does this sort of pre-trial detention potentially constitute a gross abrogation of basic human and constitutional rights to a fair trial, it also removes individuals from their families and local support networks – including their ongoing sources of medical and mental health care.

There are a number of bills currently working their way through the Massachusetts legislature that call for limiting the use of pre-trial incarceration and replacing it – when appropriate – with rational tools for assessing whether or not an individual is violent and / or a flight risk. For example, H.1584 & S.802 call for basing pre-trial detention on risk of not returning to court, rather than on an individual’s ability to pay monetary bail.

Ironically, a month before Sheriff Cousins’ call for jail expansion, Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello launched a pilot drug amnesty plan, explaining that for addicts “Arresting them or coercing them into treatment just doesn’t work.”

Let’s hope that Gloucester Police Chief Campanello’s own colleagues in Essex County heed his advice.

Click here to read Lois Ahren’s “A Less Expensive Option” letter to the Gloucester Times.

For more on the issue of carceral treatment see Incarceration by Any Other Name: A Return to the Cuckoo’s Nest?

For more on building carceral facilities see Civil Commitment: If You Build It They Will Come

This is part one of a two-part series about bills regarding incarceration that are currently under consideration in Massachusetts

“Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, there shall be established a women’s regional correctional facility in Eastern Massachusetts to address the unique and specific needs of female pre-trial detainees and county offenders in Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, Norfolk, Plymouth and Barnstable counties. This facility will provide specialized programming, access to vital medical services and shall address specific needs of incarcerated women not currently provided by the Commonwealth.” – S. 1297

Unique and Specific Needs

I’m never quite sure what’s “unique” about women’s needs, given that women are more than half of the U.S. population. Be that as it may, having spent the past decade speaking with women pre-, during and post-incarceration, I know that jails and prisons are not optimal – or even appropriate – settings for providing health care or social services. The coercive nature of incarceration does not allow women to be active participants in addressing their health issues. Prisoners cannot seek medical care in an autonomous way (requests for medical attention are channeled through correctional officers resulting in delays and even denial of care) and women often distrust the medical care provided in prison. Mental health services in particular are of questionable value when provided in coercive settings. Though the details are fictional, this truth is well dramatized in Orange is the New Black‘s Brook Soso‘s experiences with her counselor Sam Healy (spoiler alert: she tries to commit suicide as a consequence of his therapeutic skills.) Rather than serving a therapeutic purpose, incarceration cuts women off from support networks as well as their on-going sources of medical and mental health care, exacerbating whatever challenges they faced before they were locked up. Even in best case scenarios of willing participants and skillful providers, jail settings magnify the social and personal powerlessness that created this female “neediness” in the first place.

More broadly, it is inappropriate for jails and prisons to compensate for the failure of the State to provide for women’s “specific needs.” Jails and prisons are not social service or therapeutic agencies, and that distinction needs to be made clear as a matter of human rights.

Pre-trial Detention

The new jail called for in S. 1297 would serve as a setting for pre-trial detention; that is, incarceration of individuals who have not yet been tried or proven guilty (individuals who, in line with American jurisprudence, are presumed innocent.)

Although women comprise only 7% of state prisoners they comprise 33% of pretrial detainees held by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. This disparity reflects substantially lower rates of major and violent crimes committed by women coupled with substantially higher rates of poverty among women. Women incarcerated in pre-trial status typically have been arrested for non-violent crimes and are too poor to pay even minimal bail fees. It is not unusual for women to be unable to come up with bails of $100 or $200 dollars. As one woman whom I interviewed explained, “There are lots of women in the Awaiting Trial Unit who are $10 short on bail. They can pay most of it but not all so they are kept in jail which costs the State a lot more.”

Yet very few women incarcerated in Massachusetts need to be removed from the community in order to preserve public safety. In fact, they are far more likely to have been victims than perpetrators of violent crimes; nearly all live with chronic physical and mental illnesses; the majority has experienced sexual and physical abuse; many are homeless; most are poor; and about half struggle with basic literacy and learning skills.

There are a number of bills and conversations currently working their way through the Massachusetts legislature that call for limiting the use of pre-trial incarceration and replacing it – when appropriate — with rational tools for assessing whether or not an individual is violent and / or a flight risk. For example, H.1584 & S.802 calls for basing pre-trial detention on an individual’s risk of not returning to court, rather than his or her ability to pay a monetary bail. In states where these tools have been adopted, the rate of pre-trial incarceration has dramatically declined for women. More important, there has been no increase in criminal activity or recidivism carried out by women awaiting trial at home rather than in a correctional facility.

Facility – Shmacility!

The road to hell, as they say, can be paved with good intentions. And the impetus behind S.1297 is indeed benevolent (I know the track record of the bill’s sponsor to be a true advocate for women); the goal is indeed to help “needy” women. But, as feminists have made clear for the past half century – paternalism, while often kindly intended, erases agency and obscures the underlying structures of oppression. Indeed, the use of the word “facility” rather than “jail” in and of itself obfuscates the situation. But as long as that facility has locked doors and is run by the Department of Corrections it is a jail. And we do not need more jails. Period.


A decade ago I traveled to the Mississippi Delta, Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, the rust belt of Illinois, the mountains of northern Idaho and the cities of eastern Massachusetts in order to learn how uninsured Americans manage (or don’t manage) their health and healthcare in diverse circumstances. This spring and summer I returned to these communities to seek out the same individuals and families I’d met ten years ago. I wanted to hear how they’ve fared in the wake of the Affordable Care Act.

It is clear to me that June 23, 2015’s Supreme Court ruling in King v. Burwell is good news for millions of middle-class Americans living in states whose leaders chose not to set up insurance marketplaces (“exchanges”). People in those states will not lose their insurance subsidies because the federal rather than the state government facilitates the exchange.

The states impacted by King v. Burwell are, however, mostly the same ones impacted by the 2012 Supreme Court ruling (NFIB v. Sebelius) which allowed states to opt out of the ACAs Medicaid expansion. Lower income people in those states will continue to fall into the coverage gap — the no man’s land for people who earn too little to qualify for subsidized insurance through the exchange but who do not qualify for Medicaid in their home states. In some of those states only extremely poor parents and children are eligible for Medicaid, leaving large numbers of people who are childless or near elderly or poor but not destitute unable to access healthcare.

Texas, one of the states that did not expand Medicaid, has a federally facilitated marketplace. During my return trip to the Rio Grande Valley, I was able to locate 18 of the 26 individuals and families (all adults) I’d met a decade ago. At the time, all were uninsured. Fourteen of the 18 are now insured – a figure that, on the face of it, looks encouraging.

However, of the 14 who are insured, 5 now are covered by Medicare via Disability (as a consequence of becoming sufficiently disabled to qualify for SSI or SSDI). In other words, a third of the newly insured people are covered because their health deteriorated to a the point in which they no longer are able to work. One person is covered by Medicare because she is over 65. Two people have Medicaid but only as a supplement to Medicare; no one qualified for Medicaid as their primary insurance.

All 4 of the uninsured people fall into the coverage gap – when they applied for insurance on the exchange they found that their incomes are too low to qualify for subsidies. The experiences of the Martinez family (a pseudonym) are typical. Maria works full-time in a food service job that provides health insurance for her but requires a bi-weekly payment of $250 to cover her children. Her bi-weekly income is $500, so she had to turn down the coverage. Her husband, Enrique, is a truck driver whose employer does not offer insurance but he earns too little to qualify for a subsidized premium on the exchange. For a short time their youngest child was eligible for Medicaid (CHIP), but then Enrique’s income went up (marginally) and she no longer qualified. In 2013 Enrique spoke with an ACA enrollment specialist who helped him apply for an exemption from the penalty for not having insurance. In 2014 he forgot to re-apply and had to pay $190 in fines ($95 for himself and $95 for their 21 year old child.) In the meantime, he takes medication for high blood pressure when the border with Mexico is safe enough for him to cross over and buy pills there. I make no claim to extraordinary prophetic powers, but my guess is that in another five years he will join the ranks of disabled Texans.

That leaves 5 who are insured via the exchange and 5 now insured through employers – certainly a step up from when I first met them. However, all 10 of these Texans are unhappy with their insurance, for the most part because of high deductibles and co-pays. Rosa, an energetic and articulate middle-aged woman, is reimbursed by her employer for part of the cost of the premium she purchased through the exchange. Because of her low salary she chose a “bronze” plan with a low monthly premium (all that she could afford) but a $4500 annual deductible and $1000 co-pay for hospitalization. With a history of tumors in her breast and kidney, she needs scans that she cannot afford even with insurance. I fear that she too, will join the growing ranks of Americans who are disabled.

Shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling on the ACA, President Obama spoke from the Rose Garden celebrating our national declaration that health care is a right, not a privilege. Now the challenge is to turn that declaration into reality on the ground – even in states whose leaders would rather thumb their noses at the feds than allow residents of their state to access the care that they need in order to remain healthy.

For more on health insurance read  Health Insurance Roulette: The House Always Wins

For more on the original research in the five states read  Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity



mother prison baby

A bill to create community-­based sentencing alternatives for non-­violent primary caretakers of dependent children (House Bill #1382) was filed a few months ago in Massachusetts. The mover behind this bill was Andrea James, a formerly incarcerated woman and founder of Families for Justice as Healing. According to James, the goal of the bill is “alleviating the harm to children and primary caretaker parents caused by separation due to incarceration of the parents, while reducing recidivism and strengthening family unity and communities.” Citing a report issued by Erika Kates, Ph.D, of the Wellesley Centers for Women, James emphasizes that an estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of incarcerated women in Massachusetts are mothers, over half of whom likely lived with their children prior to arrest.

My own strong support for this proposed legislation grows out of the research I have conducted for the past decade among Massachusetts women who have been incarcerated. The majority of these women were primary caretakers of dependent children at the time that they were incarcerated, and the consequences of incarceration were and remain overwhelmingly negative for the children, their mothers, and often for the entire extended family.

When mothers are sent to prison, their children become collateral captives, following their mothers into the institutional circuit and often ending up in foster care or living with an extended family member who may be less able to parent than the incarcerated mother.

Continue reading

My friend Isabella has been beside herself with worry over her son and her housing situation. Ever since the first time we met (seven years ago!) in a half-way house for women, she has told me that she wants Americans who are fortunate enough to live in secure and stable housing to know what people who are dependent upon the institutional circuit of shelters, clinics, welfare, jails and DYS must go through just to (barely) hang on. I urged her to writer down her experiences. What follows is a Facebook conversation between us about what she’s been going through these past few months.

Isabella: Like many others, my husband and teen-age son and I have been living in what they call “scatter shelters.” What that means is that there aren’t enough good solutions for homeless families so they put us in apartments scattered around the city. Because we are a family, we were given one bedroom in a four bedroom apartment shared by four families. Some of the families have several kids, so it was very crowded. We all shared the living, kitchen and bathroom. One of our housemates at that apartment was an alcoholic and hit our son in the head with a bottle of Grey Goose. After that the manager moved us into another shared apartment in even worse conditions than the first one.

We are not criminals or children, but at the scatter shelter we all have a 9:00 curfew, 11:00 on weekends (though we can get a weekend pass.)

One weekend our son was staying with his grandmother and he called us up to say she had kicked him out. But it was after curfew (he had permission to be out but we had not arranged to be out) so we had to call the shelter supervisor to get permission to go and get him. By the time we reached her and got permission the last T [public transportation] had run so we had to take a taxi, which cost us $120 – a very big part of our monthly income.


Susan: Are you able to set up the apartment to feel like home?


Isabella: Because of all the moves and living in one room most of our stuff is in storage, including a television and really nice living room set that my father bought us before we lost our housing. But storage is expensive and we owe $3000 to the storage company. The company will not accept a partial payment and told us that they would auction off our stuff if we can’t come up with all of the money right away. But both of us are disabled and we live on Social Security so we couldn’t come up with the money.


I’ve been anxious and depressed through all of this, but what’s happened in the past two weeks has pushed me over the edge and I’m crying as I write this.


Susan: What’s been going on?


Isabella: Our son had gotten into some trouble for which he was put on probation. Unfortunately, he violated the terms of his probation and so he was taken into DYS (Department of Youth Services) custody for an indefinite time of anywhere between two weeks until up until his eighteenth birthday. So I’m SUPER STRESSED OUT, losing my mind actually, because we have NO IDEA where we’re gonna go. They’re saying that since our son is in the custody of DYS that he cannot be considered a part of our “case file” so we can’t stay in the family shelter. But he can’t be released by DYS to us if we don’t have a stable environment to live in. But we’re going to lose our place in the shelter because he is not living with us RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT and without him as part of our case file we are $26 over the monthly limit to qualify for a homeless shelter.

I called the housing office and was told that our son DOESN’T qualify as homeless, because and I quote the almighty DIRECTOR of DHCD, “He already has a place to stay [in DYS custody]; so he’s not homeless…” They said, “When he gets out and is homeless have him call us to verify he’s on the streets and we’ll reevaluate your eligibility.”

So basically we’re stuck in a Catch 22: Damned if we do, damned if we don’t!!! He CANNOT be released if we do not have a place for him to stay…BUT, we cannot keep a place to stay if he remains in lockup!!! I can’t win! I’m losing my fucking mind!!!!!! I’m so sorry for the vulgarity but I am flabbergasted.

I’m SO SUPER STRESSED I have no idea where we’re going and the thought of being homeless with our son frightens me like nothing has ever frightened me before.


While many of the poor, chronically ill and criminalized women I know turn their anger and blame on particular “bitches” who work in social and correctional services, Isabella has made clear to me from the first time we talked that, “It’s a system that is designed for us to fail.” Emergency assistance programs make frequent changes in eligibility criteria for receiving services, causing feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability in those who are dependent upon welfare as well as obligating recipients to spend great amounts of time and energy re-certifying their eligibility for the support and services that, in most other industrialized countries, are considered a basic right.

Even when you qualify for assistance, it turns out that Social Security Insurance (SSI) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Family (welfare) remittances are not sufficient to live on. As a result, recipients also are drawn into homeless shelters or other housing programs. Homeless shelters, while better than the street in most instances, are structured around rules that seem designed for people to break them. For a mother, residence in a homeless shelter is a surefire way to draw in child welfare services. Child welfare services are more likely than not to send women to drug testing programs which in turn easily leads them into the correctional system. Conditions of probation and parole — such as requiring constant urine tests — make it impossible to hold down a job. And children like Isabella’s son who were drawn into child welfare services are more likely than other children to end up in juvenile detention facilities, jails and prisons – all but guaranteeing that they will remain stuck in the same institutional circuit that failed them from the start.

You can read more about Isabella and the institutional circuit in Can’t Catch a Break.


I recently read this powerful piece by Jean Trounstine. Jean has graciously agreed to let me repost it here, so that I can share it with my readers. It originally appeared at


Every semester my students from Voices Behind Bars, a class I teach at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, go to prison. They used to visit state institutions but now that the Massachusetts state prisons do not offer tours (perhaps because it is a hassle to have outsiders trooping through them and criticizing what they see) the students take a tour of Billerica House of Correction, where they experience confinement to some degree and listen for an hour to an incarcerated man talk about his life and what it is like to be behind bars.

Originally, the Middlesex House of Correction was built in 1929 and housed 300 men. Now it has more than 1100, after a $37 million dollar expansion which prison officials say was to accommodate the closing of the Cambridge Jail —not without objections from activists and community members who opposed more prison building (actually costing $43 million per The Lowell Sun.)

I’ve always thought it’s not ideal to have my students learn about prison by going to a place where people are only kept for 2 1/2 years, the county sentence at a house of correction. Certainly a far cry from a life sentence. I told myself students couldn’t really learn as much about the strains of prison without seeing the harsher conditions that exist in state institutions. That is, until this last visit.

Most of the tour went as usual. We went through the older part of the facility where cells can get up to 110 degrees in the summer. We saw the visiting room where men talk to their loved ones through glass. The officer who showed the students around Billerica explained that prisoners must walk on the green stripes in the hallways; there were the usual men cleaning with mops and pushing large barrels down walkways; the smell was of too much cleaning fluid. We passed through the health unit where men were waiting to see practitioners and others were isolated in cells. It was prison as usual.

We no longer are allowed to see the Hole or what prison officials call the Segregation Unit, since men are there disciplined to solitary confinement which my students know Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently said can drive men mad. Therefore, the highlight of the tour is always taking them into what is called a “pod.” A pod is the relatively new term in prison construction where prisoners can live in a contained unit. These pods are somewhat stale and robot-like but they allow the COs the ability to see what is going on.

We entered the pod where men do drug treatment and have earned some privileges. It has the reputation of being a better place to reside than the old part of the institution which is pretty grim and can house two men in a cell. To the left is one old institutional unit at Blillerica, looking a little prettier than it really is with whitewashed grey walls, all somehow devoid of color in reality:

On the pod we entered, those incarcerated run some of the addiction groups themselves, we were told. On the tier above the day room where prisoners sit, eat, and play cards at the tables, are rows of cells where men live. The same cells are on the first floor all around the room.  Each cell has a tiny vertical slit—a window—and when we come into their space, the men inevitably stare out the window at us. At times, they’ve pounded on their doors; at other times, they’ve all been at tables eating lunch, trying to ignore the fact that there are outsiders nearby.

This time, when the twenty of us entered, there were only a few men in their brownish beige uniforms sitting at tables. Another two were talking to the guards who policed the room, two perched at a computerized station at one end. The students all took turns entering a cell to see what it is like, a rather disturbing experience on many levels for most of them. One student, we’ll call her Sofia, suddenly turned toward me as Spanish was heard above us. She pointed up at a window where a man smiled widely and pressed his face against the slit.

“That’s my brother,” Sofia said, her eyes filling with tears.

I looked up and he waved at me, his sister’s teacher. Sofia looked away.

I asked the young woman if she had known he would be here, and yes, Sofia said, she knew he was in this  facility but no, she had no idea she might see him. She seemed torn, wanting to look, wanting to hide. She said under her breath as others continued their entrance into cells, as far as she knew, he had no hope of ever not doing drugs. She’d lost touch, she said. She couldn’t imagine he might be doing OK.

But the young man’s face lit with joy when he saw her, and before we left that unit, it was almost as if a light went off for her too. Prison became about loneliness, about being apart, about the kind of pain that happens when families break up. It was no longer just about this space or this room or that hallway. Sofia’s brother, as close as he was, was nowhere near his sister. And would not be for a long time, perhaps never. She understood that and so did I.

When we exited Billerica that day, Sofia told the other students about her brother behind bars. Now, after walking through Billerica, and after being with Sofia, they understood why prison was not just a physical place, but a deep wound.