FotorCreatedHeadlines decrying the “opioid epidemic” have been in the news on a daily basis lately. Politicians, public figures and journalists here in Massachusetts as elsewhere around the country are practically trampling each other in their haste to jump on the “addicts are not criminals, they are sick and need treatment” bandwagon.

This sort of speedy 180 degree shift in public opinion calls out to me as a sociologist. How did it happen that after decades of quietly locking up people (disproportionately men of color) for drug crimes we now are approaching across-the-political-spectrum consensus in favor of treatment rather than punishment?

I’ve argued elsewhere (“White Women, Opiates and Prison“) that part of the impetus lies in recent spates of high-profile drug overdoses in white communities and an unspoken consensus that while it’s okay to send Black kids to juvenile detention “our” kids deserve better. While the poster-child for drug use in the 80s and 90s was – literally — African American, over the past decade, whites have experienced a greater rise than African-Americans or Latinos in drug-related death rates. According to the CDC, in 2000, non-Hispanic black persons aged 45–64 had the highest rate for drug-poisoning deaths involving heroin. In 2013, non-Hispanic white persons aged 18–44 had the highest rate.

Is There Really a Growing Epidemic?

FotorCreated2No and yes.

No, there has not been an increase in drug use overall, with the exception of marijuana (which is not implicated in drug deaths.) According to statistics released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

Marijuana use has increased since 2007. In 2013, there were 19.8 million current users—about 7.5 percent of people aged 12 or older—up from 14.5 million (5.8 percent) in 2007. Use of most drugs other than marijuana has stabilized over the past decade or has declined. In 2013, 6.5 million Americans aged 12 or older (or 2.5 percent) had used prescription drugs nonmedically in the past month. Prescription drugs include pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives. And 1.3 million Americans (0.5 percent) had used hallucinogens (a category that includes ecstasy and LSD) in the past month. Cocaine use has gone down in the last few years. In 2013, the number of current users aged 12 or older was 1.5 million. This number is lower than in 2002 to 2007 (ranging from 2.0 million to 2.4 million).

Yes, there has been an increase in the number of drug-related and particularly opiate related deaths. At this time, it is unclear whether that uptick whether that uptick is caused by bad drugs, stronger drugs, lower tolerances in people who cycle in and out of detox, or something else entirely. What we do know is that, according to researchers at the CDC, the primary culprits are prescription pain medication and poly-drug use:

[Our study highlights] the predominant role opioid analgesics play in pharmaceutical overdose deaths, either alone or in combination with other drugs. It also, however, highlights the frequent involvement of drugs typically prescribed for mental health conditions such as benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and antipsychotics in overdose deaths.

The issue, then, is not more drug users but rather higher rates of death from particular drugs and drug combinations. That distinction should be critical in terms of policy yet typically is overlooked. Take for instance, a recent article in the Boston Globe: “Boston Globe Game Changers: Four Innovative Ideas for Fixing the Opioid Crisis.” Three out of the four “innovative ideas” are aimed at helping individuals stop using drugs and assume that “treatment” (whatever that means) is effective, an assumption that, I have argued elsewhere, has little basis in evidence-based research. I  respect Gloucester Chief of Police Leonard Campanello for recognizing that arresting drug users is not helpful and I applaud CeltiCare for reducing bureaucratic hurdles for people struggling with addiction and I think it’s great that Massachusetts General Hospital recognizes that people struggling with addiction can use support – even when dealing with addiction treatment institutions. Yet only one of the four innovative ideas actually targets drug-related death: Healthcare for the Homeless has opened a safe space for people who are using drugs to sit down and get help — including Narcan (nasal spray for emergency treatment of suspected opioid overdose) – when they feel unwell.

The emphasis on treating people for drug use (in order to get them to stop using drugs) rather than minimizing drug-related deaths (harm reduction) is, I suspect, not going to change anytime soon. As a society we are far too invested – financially, politically, morally and culturally.

How (Not) to Treat an Epidemic

Ironically, despite public reiterations of the word “epidemic”, our public responses are not in line with standard protocols for tackling epidemics. Take this article which recently appeared in the local Wellesley Patch :

A change to Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association regulations aims to encourage high school athletes struggling with substance abuse to undergo treatment. Under the new rule athletes can come forward and seek help for substance abuse without being penalized for violating the MIAA’s drug policy. “We wanted to change the rule for people who recognize that there’s a problem,” Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, who spearheaded the change, told Patch. “We don’t want to discourage people from coming forward.” Morrissey said athletes in particular are susceptible to abuse if they’ve used prescription drugs while recovering from sports injuries.

Now let’s break this article down.

First, readers unacquainted with Massachusetts need to know that Wellesley is one of the wealthiest and whitest towns in the state and that Norfolk County is the 28th highest-income county in the United States with a median household income of $81,899. In other words, we learn that substance abuse is a disease that afflicts even the most respectable people (student athletes in wealthy, white suburbs) and that requires treatment.

Second, while individual student athletes with substance abuse issues are urged to seek help, the MIAA did not question why so many athletes are injured. Are there particular teams in particular towns that are more injury-prone? If so (and I believe that to be the case), what is it about these teams and towns that make them fertile for the spread of opiate overuse? Are severe injuries due to the culture of hyper-masculinity in the sports world driving boys (and coaches) to reckless behavior? Are kids learning that real men should suck up pain? Alternatively, given the widespread use of prescription pain medication, are they learning that every pain needs to be medically treated? Maybe they are learning that only those who are the best at something really count? Or are they picking up the message that success in high school sports may be their last chance in life to shine, that from here on it’s all down hill? Full disclosure – I do not know if any of this is the case, and that is the problem. No one knows because these sorts of social and cultural questions are not being studied.

Follow the Money

There are huge profits to be made in drug treatment, though there is very little rigorous evidence showing that addiction treatment of any sort actually works. Not so much money, however, to be made in changing social values.

Given the public consensus that addiction is a manageable yet essentially incurable disease (“once an addict, always an addict” is a mantra promulgated by the 12 Step movement; there is no actual evidence for this notion), the treatment-industrial complex stands to be even more profitable than the prison-industrial complex. Prison sentences and parole eventually end; the treatment of chronic disease can go on forever.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union:

As incarceration rates skyrocket, the private prison industry expands at exponential rates, holding ever more people in its prisons and jails, and generating massive profits. Private prisons for adults were virtually non-existent until the early 1980s, but the number of prisoners in private prisons increased by approximately 1600% between 1990 and 2009. Leading private prison companies essentially admit that their business model depends on high rates of incarceration. For example, in a 2010 Annual Report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company, stated: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices . . . .”

Fortunately for their stockholders, private prison companies are moving into the lucrative treatment field. Take a look at this excellent article by Deirdre Fernandes in the the Boston Globe:

The $35 billion-a-year addiction treatment industry is gaining more attention from investors of all sizes, including private equity giants like Boston-based Bain Capital, which owns the largest chain of detox clinics in Massachusetts. Large investors are capitalizing on the increasing demand, changes in health care law, and opportunities to scoop up smaller facilities, reduce their costs, and sell them at a profit. American Addiction Centers, a Nashville addiction treatment company, went public in late 2014, raising $75 million. Its profits climbed from $871,000 in 2011 to $11.2 million last year, a more than twelve-fold increase. So it’s no surprise that individual investors are piling in, too, said Philip Levendusky, the director of psychology at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. “Everybody is chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of the opioid issue,” Levendusky said. “There’s an epidemic of opioid abuse, so there’s a tremendous demand.”

A Real Response to an Epidemic

In order to get a sense of what a real public health response to an epidemic looks like I turned to the CDC’s webpage on Zika. Medical attention for affected individuals is part of the picture, yet the CDC focuses more on understanding the underlying causes of the problem, tracing how it spreads, and taking pro-active measures to prevent its proliferation. This includes identifying exactly where there are clusters of Zika-carrying mosquitoes and clusters of affected humans, pinpointing exactly how transmission occurs, and taking concrete steps to minimize the possibilities of transmission.

Imagine if efforts to stop the Zika virus were limited to offering individual treatment (the treatment consists of rest, water and Tylenol since there is no known cure for the Zika virus) and counseling sufferers about the importance of staying away from mosquitoes (where exactly does one go to hide from mosquitoes in the tropics?)! Imagine if there were no efforts to assist communities in removing stagnant water from yards and streets or to encourage governments to build systems that distribute safe water (so as to minimize mosquito larvae survival as well as the need for households to store water in buckets and pools)!

Yet that essentially is how Massachusetts, like other states, is tackling its opioid epidemic. For instance, just a week ago, Marian Ryan, district attorney in Middlesex County, issued a press release addressing the epidemic by offering a list of resources for people struggling with addiction and for “their loved ones.” The list turns out to be a hodge-podge of treatment and support agencies and organizations, many of which are not licensed by any local, state or federal office and some of which are for-profits corporations (LLCs or others) while others are entirely lay-led quasi-religious 12-Step groups. (The statuses of the agencies and organizations are not indicated on the list.)

In terms of opiate over-use, what would be the equivalent of cleaning up the pools of stagnant water in which mosquitoes breed? The equivalent of wide-scale public investment in safe water for all communities?

Having spent the past decade working closely with women who are former or current illicit drug users, I have seen how gender inequality (machismo and sexual abuse), crummy schools, reiterated messages that ‘if you are not wealthy and beautiful you are a failure,’ and over-reliance on pharmaceuticals of all kinds (licit and illicit) play the role of mosquito-breeding pools of standing water. In line with these observations, I believe that public investment in good schools and in facilities for worthwhile leisure time activities for people of all ages, legislation ensuring living wages and paid family leave, and a fair economy in which the majority of people can realistically strive for good and meaningful lives, play the role of investment in safe water.

If we really are in the midst of an opioid epidemic then it is foolishly short-sighted for us to focus our efforts on individual rather than public measures. To be clear, I am not suggesting that drug users who wish to stop using should not receive appropriate, evidence-based support and treatment. I am, however, pointing out that giving drug abusers the equivalent of rest, water and Tylenol will not protect them — or anyone else — from the stagnant pools of sexism, poverty and hopelessness.

See Thinking Outside the Cell: Concrete Suggestions for Positive Change and A Feminist Sociologist’s Thoughts on the Zika Virus.

Images taken from headlines of the following articles:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/how-bad-is-the-opioid-epidemic/
http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/2016/05/24/grassleys-help-needed-fight-against-opioid-epidemic/84857302/
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/the-new-heroin-epidemic/382020/
http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/baby-opioids/
http://www.nationalreview.com/article/431486/heroin-prescription-painkillers-new-drug-epidemic
http://observer.com/2016/05/the-opioid-epidemic-its-time-to-place-blame-where-it-belongs/
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/opioid-epidemic-medical-students-harvard_us_573e35c9e4b045cc9a707ca0
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristine-scruggs-md/the-opioid-epidemic-where_b_10112096.html
http://republicanherald.com/news/heroin-opioid-epidemic-grabs-attention-of-lawmakers-1.2045645

 

 

Within the next months, Massachusetts’ legislators are expected to consider an amendment mandating that “Strip searches of inmates, including the videotaping thereof, shall not be conducted by or in the immediate vicinity of a correction officer or other employee of the opposite sex, except under an emergency or otherwise urgent situation.” Massachusetts Bill H.3444, An Act relative to searches of female inmates, comes in the wake of a successful lawsuit filed in 2011 against Sheriff Michael J. Ashe and Assistant Superintendent Patricia Murphy of the Western Massachusetts Regional Correctional Center in Chicopee. This lawsuit was filed on behalf of Debra Baggett and 178 former and current women detainees at the Chicopee Jail. As Jean Troustine explains, the defendants brought evidence showing that over a period of less than two years 273 strip searches had been videotaped, all of women, mostly by men who supposedly did not look.

The proposed law is certainly a step in the right direction. However, allowing the presence of an officer or employee of the opposite sex under an (undefined) “emergency or otherwise urgent situation” leaves the door open for subjective assessments of “emergencies” (for example, the inmate appears upset – a reaction that I’d expect to be fairly common when faced with a strip search) or bureaucratically based “urgencies” (for example, no officers of the matching gender happen to be available.)

Strip searches ostensibly are carried out in order to prevent contraband from entering prisons, yet reports cast serious doubts on the effectiveness of strip searches in that matter. In fact, evidence indicates that the majority of contraband is brought into prisons by prison employees rather than by inmates. Even if a strip search uncovers a bag of heroin or cocaine hidden on the body, that bag is likely to be a drop in the bucket against the background of the larger market of drugs smuggled in by employees. In other words, even if strip searches could be justified in terms of uncovering contraband (which, in fact, strip searches rarely uncover), to the extent that I have been able to see hard data on the matter, the amount of the uncovered contraband cannot justify this practice. In fact, no one really knows how effective strip searches are at keeping contraband out of prisons which is why I urge the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (and the rest of the country, for that matter) to document every strip search: the specific reason for conducting it and what exactly – if anything – the search uncovered.

National studies have found that strip searches often are conducted to establish power more than for real expectations of finding contraband . According to Deborah L. Macgregor, in an article published in the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, women are particularly targeted for these displays of power. It is not uncommon for prison guards to use children as pawns to coerce women to participate in a strip search. For example, women may be threatened with not being permitted to see their children if they fail to cooperate. “Prison and police officers are vested with the power and responsibility to do acts which, if done outside of work hours, would be crimes of sexual assault. If a person does not ‘consent’ to being stripped naked by these officers, force can lawfully be used to do it,” according to Amanda George in the Australian Institute of Criminology.  George cites women’s accounts of strip searches: “We are strip searched after every visit. We are naked, told to bend over, touch our toes, spread our cheeks. If we’ve got our period we have to take the tampon out in front of them. It’s degrading and humiliating. When we do urines it’s even worse, we piss in a bottle in front of them. If we can’t or won’t we lose visits for three weeks.”

Justice Marshall has described a strip search as “one of the most grievous offenses against personal dignity and common decency.” These searches create “feelings of ‘deep degradation and terror'” and instill psychological reactions that “can be likened to those of rape victims.” The punitive nature of strip-searching is particularly egregious in light of the fact that approximately one third of women incarcerated in Massachusetts have not been convicted of a crime. Rather, they are in jail or prison awaiting trial, typically because they are not able to pay relatively small sums of bail money.

The coercive nature of prison exacerbates the humiliation of strip searches. An estimated 70% of women drawn into the correctional system have experienced physical or sexual violence, and in many cases that includes childhood sexual abuse. Prison procedures requiring the removal of clothing and intimate touching of an inmate’s body are especially traumatizing for women who have suffered abuse in the past. Responses to perceived threats can include alienation, withdrawal, fighting back, extreme outbursts, worsening of psychiatric symptoms or physical health problems, self-injury or suicide attempts, and increased substance use. In the prison context, these behaviors can lead to further punishment, including solitary confinement, and can easily be construed as an “emergency” meriting the presence of opposite sex officers at the strip search.

According to testimony provided by Carmen Guhn-Knight (August 7, 2015) based on interviews with sixty women who were videotaped while undergoing strip searches at the Chicopee Jail in western Massachusetts, “Women with histories of sexual abuse told me of their heightened sensitivity to having their naked bodies video-recorded. They said they returned to their communities re-traumatized, and in some cases with PTSD due to being recorded during strip searches.” Guhn-Knight shares some of the reactions she heard from these women: “Do we have to have the videotape? I don’t want to be videotaped naked. I don’t want to be filmed naked… I don’t want the camera on me.” “Is this going to end up on YouTube? … I’m being filmed while everything’s off? I’m naked being filmed.” “I’m not going to get stripped in front of a camera, that’s pornography.” “[You] take someone’s dignity and then do it again with a camera.” According to Guhn-Knight, “Despite their complaints, these women had no choice in the matter; they eventually removed their clothing themselves or were restrained while an officer removed their clothing.”

While the proposed amendment addresses the gender of the person holding the camera, it does not address the broader problem of video-taping strip searches overall. The taping of strip-searches is ostensibly for the protection of the prisoner; that is, having a record may prevent or at least document abuse during the search. However, the preservation of the tapes opens the door for grievous violations of privacy. In a country in which viewing on-line pornography is widespread (and sometimes unavoidable when unrequested porn sites pop up on screens), women inmates have good reason to fear that the tapes of strip searches may be misused for pornographic entertainment. Doubling down on the harm of the practice of videotaping strip searches, research shows that men who watch pornography are more likely to voice attitudes supporting violence against women and to display dominance and aggression (including choking, gagging and insulting name-calling) toward women while engaging in sexual activity.

Based on my reading of the scholarly literature as well as on my own research with formerly incarcerated women, I believe that the proposed amendment does not go far enough to protect women or men from the pain, humiliation and human rights violations associated with strip searches. I suggest that the law be amended to (1) disallow routine strip searches (2) permit strip searches only in situations when there is clearly defined and documented reason to suspect that the inmate is hiding contraband on his or her body (3) clearly inform all prison staff that strip searches may not be used as a form of punishment or discipline, and institute sanctions against staff who order or participate in strip searches in other than situations where there is clearly defined and documented reason for the search (4) disallow all strip searches by opposite sex officers and employees (5) cease video-taping of strip searches (6) immediately discard all existing video-tapes of strip searches.

Last month Amnesty International came out in support for “the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.” The reasons make sense: Decriminalization will eliminate the jail time and fines that punish (mostly) women for trying to make a living; it will give sex workers access to the health care and services that other kinds of workers benefit from; and it will allow sex workers to turn to the police for protection without fear that they themselves will be arrested. Amnesty International rightly asks, “How can we reduce the threat of violence to sex workers? What can be done to ensure their access to medical care and help prevent HIV? And how can discrimination and social marginalization that put sex workers at increased risk of abuse be stopped?”

But then I looked a bit more closely and two little words made me sit up for a double-take: “all aspects”? Seriously? An organization that I deeply respect has called for the decriminalization of pimping and procuring? Apparently, yes, for the reason that anti-pimp laws have been used to arrest sex workers who share a working space. Does that happen frequently enough to justify decriminalizing all pimping and procuring? It turns out that the answer is no – these laws are not used against sex workers anywhere near as often as they are used against actual pimps and procurers.

I took another look at the statement, and this time noticed a preemptive argument that, I would guess, was written to fend off attacks from people — like me — who would not be so thrilled with across-the-board decriminalization: “These questions about health, safety and equality under the law, are more important than any moral objection to the nature of sex work.” Oh no! My colleagues at Amnesty International could not possibly have used one of the cheapest tricks in the rhetorical arsenal — creating a straw man (“moral objection to the nature of sex work”) in order to imply that the only reason someone might disagree with blanket decriminalization is because of “moral objections” — a kind of objection that, in the current political climate, conjures up right-to-lifers, the Christian right, and other other enemies of human rights! Didn’t they understand that people – like me- might disagree for other reasons entirely?

The Question of Consent: Context Always Matters

Having spent ten years engaged in research and friendship with marginalized and criminalized women in Massachusetts – most of whom have exchanged sex for money at some point in their lives, I am most troubled by the words “consensual sex work.” Amnesty clarifies that they are not calling for the decriminalization of human trafficking or of people who force children or women into sex work. But this glosses over inherent problems in identifying any particular sex work situation as truly consensual.

Kahtia [not her real name], a woman I’ve known through many ups and downs, recalls with some pride a short-lived glamorous career as a prostitute and drug dealer in up-scale New York City clubs. Within a short time, however, “I became my own best  [drug] customer and had to go to the streets to make money for drugs.” Street level prostitution was not so glamorous. She learned to become totally numb and dissociate herself during sex. Kahtia demonstrates this by tipping her head back, closing her eyes, and dropping her jaw open. “It was just…wait for him to finish and give me the money.”

Was this “consensual”? One could argue that it was: She initially chose high-paying sex work and drug dealing (exactly the kind of “consensual” sex work Amnesty likely had in mind), and even the subsequent sex work could be seen as a choice she made in order to support her wish to use drugs. But, looking even further back:

Kahtia’s earliest memories are of Sunday dinners at the home of her Irish maternal grandparents. The clan, including Kahtia’s mother and white half-sister, would be seated around the family table. Kahtia and her brother – children of an African-American man — were told to eat in the hallway: Their dark skin color was not welcome at the dinner table. An under-the-radar heroin addict, Kahtia’s mother supported her own habit by shooting up Kahtia and her brother with drugs and receiving money from the men she invited to rape them. Kahtia remembers her father as a good but weak man (he was an alcoholic). She also remembers being told she exhibited “unruly behavior” due to which she was removed from home and placed into a residential program for “problem kids”. Child Welfare Services did not believe Kahtia’s stories of abuse, and she was sent home on weekends where the rapes continued. By the time she was ten Kahtia decided that anywhere she went would be better than home, so she ran away. Living on the streets as a very young girl, Kahtia encountered what she considers to be her first bit of good luck: She was adopted by a powerful gang. Emoting pride, Kahtia recounts how the gang leader heard of “the girl who kept a razor blade hidden inside her mouth” in order to defend herself, and supported her in her initial forays into drug dealing and upscale prostitution.

The details vary, but the broad outlines of abuse, time in juvenile institutions, an initially helpful older man, fear, anxiety and drug use are present in the experiences of nearly every woman I know who has ever worked in prostitution, even for a brief time.

One might be tempted to say that for at least some women, paid sex work constitutes disengagement from or resistance against traditional patriarchal practices of marriage — at least they are getting paid for what other women may be compelled to do for free. Marjolein van der Veen, a feminist economist, suggests that prostitution “opens up possibilities for commodification as a site for new economic alternatives of producing commodities in noncapitalist class structures.” Jane Scoular, a legal scholar, much along the lines of the Amnesty International statement, similarly argues that that there is nothing inherently harmful in sex work. Rather, the problem for women lies in specific temporal settings in which sex work is criminalized, marginalized and stigmatized.

While these contentions may have some intellectual merit, in my many conversations and interactions with Massachusetts women who have worked in prostitution I have never glimpsed even a hint that it’s possible to extract a neutral commercial exchange (sex for money) from the real life worlds of women who are poor, sick, homeless, abused, and / or trafficked. These contentions, as Rutgers University professor Barbara Foley writes, “tragically disregards the oppression that forces women into prostitution.” Indeed, every one of the women I know says, in one way or another, that working in prostitution, compared to even the worst marriages and lousiest jobs at fast-food joints, is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

The Gazer and the Gazed

The women I have met make it clear that unwanted, repeated bodily penetration is not equal to other paid or unpaid labor. In order to work in prostitution they must disengage the self, “go numb.” Sex work – by its very nature — transforms the body into an object to be gazed at rather than a subject with the power to gaze. Olivia (pseudonym), a former stripper interviewed by law professor Jody Raphael, recounts her experiences working in a peep show: “I know how the animals in the zoo must feel as people walk by gazing at them.” Raphael, who interviewed Olivia over a period of many months, understood that Olivia dealt with this work, “By disassociation through alcohol and drugs, and through the fantasies of pretending she was someone else, Olivia left her true self behind. While in stripping, Olivia never used her real name.”

Raphael’s observations illuminate that problematic word in Amnesty International’s position — consensual. As Rachel Moran, an author and advocate who was pulled into the sex trade when she was fifteen years old writes, “I know from what I’ve lived and witnessed that prostitution cannot be disentangled from coercion.”

True consent, as understood by every university and hospital ethics committee in the country, requires explicit acknowledgment of the inherent power differential between the researcher and the study subject – between the gazer and the gazed. While messy and complicated everyday life is not the same as a controlled research setting, informed consent standards that reflect decades of legal, philosophical and ethical consideration point to the difficulties in assessing sex work as consensual. Informed consent standards adopted in the wake of Nazi medical experimentation and other blatant human rights abuses require that all possible risks be clearly spelled out and understood by the study subject; it requires the subject to be fully physically and mentally competent to give authentic consent; it makes explicit that the subject is free to end the encounter with no explanation and with no penalty at any time; it spells out to whom the subject can report problems with the study or the researcher; and — of particularly great relevance here – it disallows the researcher to offer payment or other forms of compensation that can be construed as unduly pressuring the subject into agreeing to the study.

By these standards, and in light of the real life experiences of most sex workers, decriminalizing all aspects of “consensual” prostitution, is likely to turn out to be, as Rachel Moran writes, “[I]n the name of human rights [a way to] decriminalize violations of those rights, on a global scale.”

For a deeper discussion of these issues see Susan Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk. 2011. “Gender Overdetermination and Resistance: The Case of Criminalized Women.”   Feminist Theory 12(3): 317-333.

 

 

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.

 

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.

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

jail-cell

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 jeantrounstine.com


 

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.