“I apply for jobs everywhere and it starts off good but then they see my CORI [Criminal Offender Record Information] and come up with a reason not to keep me.”
“I tried to get jobs left and right but no one will hire you [with a CORI]. I ended up going on Social Security [disability] for my addiction.”
“Nobody’s gonna hire a large black woman in a doo-rag.”
“I’ve been in so many job training programs I think they should hire me to teach the program.”
“I worked for a couple of weeks doing office work for a tow truck company but that ended when the boss asked me to give him a blow job for $200.”
“I pretty much always worked but after 17 years working as a CNA [certified nursing assistant] I have neck and back pain caused by a lifetime of lifting. Maybe I could do something else but I’m not qualified.”
“My husband threw me out of a truck. I had neck surgery to repair the damage but the surgery made my speech sound slurred. I can’t get a job with slurred speech.”
“After I got out of jail I found a job pretty quickly. The boss knew about it and treated me badly because he knew I wouldn’t quit because I couldn’t get another job with my CORI. I was there about six months. Then, some money went missing from the registrar and the boss accused me. So I quit.”
“I want to work but right now I have to take care of my family. They all have problems. My mother, my brother, my daughter – they all depend on me.”
“The only jobs I can get are crappy jobs – the kinds of jobs where the boss gives you a few hours here and there and only tells you at the last minute when to come in.”
“The job was okay but then the manager started messing with me, not giving me enough hours, giving the good shifts to his friends. Then I found out that I need to work thirty hours a week to get benefits [EITC – Earned Income Tax Credit]. If I complain he’ll probably come up with a reason to fire me.”
“I finally got a job thanks toAnnie Dookhan[the Massachsuetts crime lab chemist who admitted to falsifying evidence]. My record cleared through Annie Dookhan but 10 years of my life were ruined.”
Over the past decade I have followed the lives of 47 Massachusetts’ women with histories of incarceration. Their lives have taken a multitude of twists and turns, good times and bad times. Some have managed to secure housing, stay away from drugs, and avoid jail. Some have not.
In contrast to their varied housing, health, criminal justice, and family paths, not a single woman has been steadily employed throughout the past ten years. At a time in which the federal and many state governments are advocating and implementing work requirements for recipients of food stamps and Medicaid, the women’s utter lack of success in the realm of employment is particularly worrisome.
Gendered Obstacles to Employment
Struggles with employment for formerly incarcerated Americans are well documented. An Urban Institute study found that employers were least likely to hire former prisoners compared with other disadvantaged groups, such as welfare recipients). In another study, Robert Apel and Gary Sweeten found that young adults who were incarcerated following their first conviction were significantly less likely to secure employment than similar young people who were convicted for the first time but were not incarcerated.
Studies also show that previously incarcerated women face particularly stiff obstacles in finding and retaining employment, though little research has looked at why. Interestingly, the same patterns seems to holds true following substance abuse treatment: Research suggests that men make greater gains in work income and are more likely to be employed post-treatment compared to women post-treatment.
In addition to the disadvantages of having a criminal record — disadvantages shared by formerly incarcerated men — the women deal with sexual abuse and exploitation, the need to balance work with family responsibilities, and the low-wages and erratic hours typical in “pink ghetto” jobs such as waitressing.
Why This Matters
First, recent research finds that, as of 2010, people with felony convictions account for 8 percent of the overall population and 33 percent of the African-American male population. Many of these nineteen million people encounter the same barriers identified by the women quoted at the top of this article. Second, many millions of Americans work in the same sorts of at-will, temporary, part-time jobs that present insurmountable obstacles to steady employment for the women I know.
Criminologist Shadd Maruna explains that meaningful work provides formerly incarcerated people with a ‘‘sense of empowerment and potency.’’ Indeed, jobs that individuals experience as rewarding may serve to decrease the motivation to commit crime.
Political theorist Judith Shklar further makes the point that “The dignity of work and of personal achievement, and the contempt for aristocratic idleness, have since Colonial times been an important part of American civic self-identification. The opportunity to work and to be paid an earned reward for one’s labor was a social right, because it was a primary source of public respect. It was seen as such, however, not only because it was a defiant cultural and moral departure from the corrupt European past, but also because paid labor separated the free man from the slave.”
For the women I have come to know jobs become a sort of holy grail – proof not only that you are able to do what good citizens are expected to do in America but also that others see you as good enough to hire and pay.
Unfortunately, most of the jobs held by the Massachusetts women turn out to be cheap Grail imitations. Even when they landed jobs and were not quickly fired, they typically experienced their jobs as exploitive or even abusive, and eventually quit.
Are There Solutions?
Complicated problems need complicated solutions.
State and federal governments need to remove legal barriers such as lifetime bans on receiving certain occupational licenses that are faced by people with felony convictions or criminal records.
Raising the minimum wage has been shown to reduce recidivism. Incentivizing employers to hire permanent, full-time workers rather than just-in-time scheduling would likely lead to stronger social contracts between employers and employees, and give workers both hard proof and symbolic assurance that they are valued at their jobs.
Making it easier for workers to report racist comments and behaviors as well as sexual harassment and exploitation at work — and coming down harder on abusive bosses, managers and co-workers, would remove some of the most serious obstacles the Massachusetts women report.
Even if we as a society were to do all of these things, many of the women I have come to know have suffered too much pain, too much abuse, and too many hits to their self-confidence, sense of autonomy and ultimately their ability to work steadily even in an ideal place of employment. And these women are not a few outliers. Criminal justice and economic policies of the past decades wreaked havoc with the occupational potentials of millions of Americans.
To begin to repair that damage we need a new New Deal. I’d like to think that at municipal, county, state and federal levels we can come together to create programs along the lines of AmeriCorps — groups of people working for pay at public projects that build communities and preserve the environment while providing workers with the feeling that they are making meaningful contributions to society. This idea is not a panacea, but it makes a whole lot more sense than sending the millions of formerly incarcerated Americans into the frayed margins of the lowest-wage market.
I wish to thank Jean Trounstine for contribution to this post.
On June 19, 2017, I spent the afternoon and early evening at the Massachusetts State House listening to testimony regarding several bills aimed at reforming incarceration policies. The large Gardner Auditorium was packed with people wearing T shirts calling for the end to mass incarceration, solitary confinement, mandatory minimum sentencing, and parole reform, and for “jobs not jails.” The members of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary listened intently to testimony from criminal justice experts, legislators, sheriffs, attorneys, physicians, and people personally impacted by criminal justice policies. With the exception of a representative of the association of Massachusetts District Attorneys, speakers from all over the Commonwealth spoke to failures of current policies to keep people safe, to safeguard human rights of prisoners, and to provide appropriate health care services to justice-involved individuals.
It all seemed so promising. If only this whole crew hadn’t been there before.
Nearly all of the bills have been proposed in the past (albeit sometimes in slightly different forms). None of the bills seemed terribly controversial, at least to me. None proposed a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system. Rather, the bills, cumulatively, addressed several of the most obviously ineffective or inequitable current practices.
House Bill 74 – implementing programs to reduce recidivism
The first bill introduced, House Bill 74, calls for implementing the recommendations made as part of an extensive review conducted by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and chaired jointly by Governor Baker, the Lieutenant Governor, Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.
As a sociologist, I often find political discourse and machinations to be a bit confusing. In this case, it was hard to get my head around reiterations that “all the players” were involved in crafting this legislation. Other proponents expressed pride that “all justice partners”; that is, representatives from all three branches of state government, worked on the bill. I also heard the term “all the stakeholders”. However, there did not seem to be any representation of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated men and women on the committee that crafted the bill. Surely “all the stakeholders” include the people most directly affected by these policies. Indeed, I’d argue that they – not politicians or bureaucrats — have the most at stake in decisions regarding prison policy.
Though many people involved with the court and prison systems had hoped for far-reaching recommendations from this review and committee, the bill focuses rather narrowly on reducing recidivism. While that certainly is an important goal, it does not speak to disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline or to other policies and social conditions that send people into the prison system to begin with.
The recommendations to reduce recidivism center on prisoner education, opportunities for early release for good behavior, and post-release supervision. A centerpiece of the bill calls for rewards for good behavior (for example, completing vocational training programs). The rewards consist of shaving days off the sentence and adding them to the period of parole (community supervision). I strongly support efforts to reduce incarceration rates, but I am concerned that lengthy and intensive supervision on parole can lead to re-incarceration due to technical violations of the conditions of parole. In my own ongoing research with criminalized women in Massachusetts, I’ve seen intensive supervision with requirements for frequent meetings with parole officers, urine tests, proof of attending programs, etc. interfere with the ability to hold down a job and manage the myriad other responsibilities that are part of modern life.
H.74 emphasizes expanding programs of various sorts: pre-trial, during incarceration and post-incarceration. Programs can be good, bad or indifferent, but programs are not a substitute for the material resources most justice-involved people desperately need: Housing, decent jobs that pay living wages, family reunification. I am particularly troubled by a lack of clarity regarding mandatory program attendance for pre-trial individuals. Given that people who are awaiting trial have not been found guilty of a crime, it is be problematic to require them to attend any sort of program.
The consensus at the hearing is that the measures to reduce recidivism outlined in this bill should be the start, not the totality, of criminal justice reform in Massachusetts. No one testified against the bill but many said in their testimony that it did not go far enough.
S819 and H741 – bills eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug crimes
More substantively, Senator Creem spoke to S819 and H741 – bills eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug crimes. She, and other supporters of the bills, made the important points that mandatory minimums have not been effective in reducing drug use; they have led to mass incarceration; they have ruined lives of young people locked up for years on trafficking chargers for what essentially amounted to sharing illicit substances with friends; and they clearly have disproportionately impacted racial minorities. There were also panels of sheriffs, defense attorneys, impacted people, and Senators Evandro Carvalho and Sonia Chang-Diaz, both who represent districts where mandatory minimums are levied with unrelenting consistency.
Collectively, they made the point that mandatory minimums undermine the American system of justice by putting power in the hands of prosecutors rather than judges. Prosecutors decide whether the charge will be one that automatically triggers a mandatory minimum or not. And prosecutors can use the threat of mandatory minimums to encourage people to “choose” to plead guilty to a lesser charge. Opponents of this practice argued that prosecutors in essence function as judges, taking away from individuals the right to a trial in front of a judge who hears arguments both from the prosecution and the defense, and who can evaluate the particular circumstances of the individual and the case.
The only opposition to ending mandatory minimums came from DA Conley of the District Attorney’s Association. Conley argued that judges are “out of touch with what goes on in communities” and that prosecutors should properly have sentencing discretion. Many people testifying after the DA rebutted his claims, some of which were not based in fact.
House Bill 3121, Senate Bill 779, An Act Related to Parole
A panel of lawyers, activists, and two formerly incarcerated testified about the importance of reforming the broken parole process in Massachusetts without which packed prisons keep expanding. They spoke of how the Parole Board needs more expertise from sociologists, psychologists, addiction and mental health specialists, and juvenile justice experts. In other words, to judge the fate of our prisoners, our Board needs more than criminal justice backgrounds. Two formerly incarcerated men talked of how the process had been daunting and almost impossible to deal with without attorneys. Massachusetts currently has a dismal paroling rate which is also costing the state $53,000 for each prisoner who could be concluding their sentence in the community, going to school, working, and at least aiming to give back to their communities.
H.2248 and H.2249 – bills limiting the use of solitary confinement
Speakers testified regarding a bill to reform (oversee, control and minimize) the use of solitary confinement in Massachusetts jails and prisons. Attorneys, advocated and families of prisoners described its overuse in the Commonwealth; to the long-lasting damage it causes prisoners; and to its utter failure to make prisons or communities safer.
A representative of Maine’s ACLU testified that six years ago Maine passed solitary confinement reforms similar to those proposed in Massachusetts. In that time, Maine reduced the use of solitary confinement by 90%; prisons have become safer; and medical and emergency rooms visits have been reduced.
Rep. Ruth Balser introduced five bills regarding the treatment of mentally ill and addicted prisoners. Among other measures, she called for Department of Mental Health oversight of mental health services in Department of Corrections facilities. (These services currently are outsourced to private companies.) The bills generated little discussion. I’d like to believe that this reflects a clear consensus regarding the important issues addressed in the bills.
H 3494 — creating a medical parole board to consider medical release from prison
This bill would allow for early release of people with extremely serious or terminal conditions. Physicians testifying in favor of the bill spoke of paraplegic prisoners, prisoners undergoing intense chemotherapy, and prisoners with blood terminal disorders developing infected sores from the use of shackles. No opposition to the bill was voiced at the hearing.
Two bills regarding women were heard
H.3586 – An act relative to justice-involved women
Representative Kay Khan presented H.3586 which brings together a call for careful collection and analysis of data, policies and programs for justice-involved women.
The bill requires the commissioner to evaluate the program delivery system for existing programming for parenting skills and related training for incarcerated women and the effectiveness of these programs. In my own research I see women repeatedly cycle through programs of various sorts. I have found it near impossible to learn whether these programs are proven effective. Often, no data are available at all. At best, data regarding the completion rates of programs are available. Completion rates, however, do not get at whether programs actually contribute to individuals going on and implementing the skills taught in the program.
The bill also calls on the commissioner to develop programs with a focus on family preservation and reunification. In my research I have seen that a great deal of the programming for justice-involved women encourages women to “put yourself first” and “do you!” Given that the vast majority of justice-involved women are mothers – and that all justice-involved women are daughters, sisters, cousins, etc. – it is appropriate for program emphasis to be placed on family preservation and reunification. Let me be clear, these goals are not simply a matter of instilling the right attitude in women or even teaching them skills. These goals require that concrete, material resources such as appropriate housing are put into place for justice-involved women and their families. Many of these women need affordable housing, comprehensive day care and after school programs, and hiring practices that make it feasible for parents with criminal records to be become employed.
Senate Bill 770, An Act providing community-based sentencing alternatives for primary caretakers of dependent children who have been convicted of non-violent crimes
Late in the day, way past school pick-up time, dinner time, kids’ bath time and homework time, we got to hear testimony from formerly incarcerated mothers and their children.
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.
In many cases, the children of incarcerated mothers are given into the custody of family members, a scenario that is not without problems. Often, the caregiver is a grandmother who, while well-intentioned, is not physically able to keep up with young children. Children hear relatives speak ill of their incarcerated mothers, or feel forced into choosing loyalty to their mother or to another family member. In a few cases, custody actually has gone to a family member who sexually abused the mother when she was a child, or who implicitly or explicitly allowed that abuse to go on.
Foster care, of course, carries its own set of problems, ranging from frequent changes and churns to the well-documented overuse of prescribed psychotropic medications. For mothers, separation from children is experienced as a severe and ongoing trauma. These mothers frequently describe feelings of extreme helplessness, powerlessness, guilt, anxiety and panic, often leading to increased prescriptions of psychotropic medication.
The testimony of formerly incarcerated mothers and the testimony of children of incarcerated parents made it clear that it is in the interests of families to keep mothers at home, in the community, with adequate support (except, of course, in those few cases where mothers have engaged in acts of violence.) Creating community based sentencing alternatives for primary caretakers of dependent children will allow many more children to benefit from the on-going presence of their mothers at the same time as it will allow mothers to develop the resources, skills and support networks that they need in order to be effective parents.
This bill, too, has been heard before. Lining up to testify felt a bit like a reunion. Maybe this time we’ll see some real change.
Headlines 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?
No 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.
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 . . . .”
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.
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?
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.
“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.
“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 anopportunity to deal with the complex health and life issues they face as tenants, rather than as clients of a prescribed system of care.”
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.
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.
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.