Tag Archives: mass incarceration

Will Massachusetts Pass Meaningful Criminal Justice Reform Legislation?

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.

H719, H720, H721, H2248, H2249 – bills regarding treatment of mentally ill prisoners

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.

 

Taking My Students to Prison

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.

Snapshots from Ferguson and Liberia: Something’s Happening HERE

The two images reprinted below have appeared widely in media outlets over the past weeks. Eerily similar? Both show armed police or soldiers carrying shields facing off against unarmed people of color. Without careful perusal, it’s hard to tell which caption belongs with which photo.

liberia

ferguson

“Liberian Soldiers Seal Slum to Halt Ebola” Associated Press, Aug. 20, 2014

“Photo Essay: Police and Protesters in Ferguson” St. Louis Post-Dispatch  Aug. 14, 2014

The Stories Behind the Photos

In Liberia’s capital city last week, residents of a densely populated, poor neighborhood protested when security forces sealed off their community as a quarantine measure in response to the Ebola outbreak. According to reports, residents asserted that not only had they been cut off from their homes but also that they were being disproportionately exposed to the virus because sick people from outside their community were being brought into an Ebola screening center set up in their neighborhood by the government.

In Ferguson, Missouri, when residents took to the streets to protest the shooting by a police officer of Michael Brown – an unarmed African-American youth, thousands of law enforcement officers as well as National Guard were deployed to contain the demonstrators. As of this writing, several hundred protesters have been arrested.

Poverty, Inequality and The Burden of Disease

Liberia is among the poorer nations of the world. In 2012 the gross national income per capita was $580; 75 babies out of 1000 could be expected to die before the age of five; and the total annual expenditure on healthcare was a meager $102 per capita. The top causes of mortality in Liberia include malaria, diarrhea, respiratory infections, AIDS and malnutrition.  Neither money nor the burden of disease is distributed evenly in Liberia. As calculated by the GINI index, Liberia is one of the least economically egalitarian countries in the world.

Fifteen years ago, Ferguson was a predominantly white middle class suburb of St. Louis. By 2010, the population was two-thirds black . Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, notes that in 2014 every Ferguson neighborhood but one has a poverty rate over 20%, “the point at which typical social ills associated with poverty like poor health outcomes, high crime rates and failing schools start to appear.”

In the state of Missouri, the rate of poverty among Black men is twice that of white men (22.5% vs. 11.6%). Among Missouri women, 24.3% of Black women vs. 14.5% of white women are living in poverty. In St. Louis County (where Ferguson is located), the rate of emergency room visits due to asthma among children under 15 years is 52% higher than the overall rate for the state. (High rates of childhood asthma are associated with environmental pollution and substandard living conditions.) The rate of infant mortality is 9% higher than the state’s rate and 21% higher than the U.S. national rate. The rate of babies born with a low birth weight (an excellent indicator of women’s overall health status and of the child’s future health status) is 8% higher than the state’s rate, and 20% higher than the national rate.

The Legacy of Injustice: War on the Poor and the Ill

Liberians are struggling with the aftermath of two recent civil wars. “Liberian scholars offer a range of explanations for the years of conflict including ethnic divisions, predatory elites who abused power, a corrupt political system, and economic disparities. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that underlying those proximate causes, the seeds of conflict were sown by the historical decision to establish Liberia as a state divided between natives and settlers, and the use of force to sustain the settlers’ hegemony.” While many Liberians are incarcerated for the “crime” of being poor or disliked by the police, perpetrators of crimes against humanity during the civil war have not been punished. Following the civil wars, according to Amnesty International, “Senators, Deputy Ministers, police officials, Special Security Service agents and Liberia National Police officers were allegedly engaged in or ordered beatings, looting, arbitrary arrests, abductions, shootings, ritualistic killings and other abuses. In most cases, no investigations were carried out and no action was taken against alleged perpetrators. … Law enforcement forces were reported to have unlawfully arrested and detained people and to have used torture and other ill-treatment, including during attempts to extort money on the streets. … Conditions in police lock-ups were appalling, with juveniles and adults routinely held together. Detainees were often subject to abuse by police and other detainees. … The formal justice system often failed to deliver fair trials and due process. Lengthy pre-trial detention beyond that allowed by law was the norm, with roughly 90 per cent of prisoners being pre-trial detainees. As well as corruption and inefficiency, the system suffered from lack of transport, court facilities, lawyers and qualified judges.”

Residents of Ferguson are struggling with the historical legacy of legally sanctioned racial discrimination, nearly four decades of ‘trickle-down’ economics that have eliminated middle and working-class jobs in the mid-west and throughout the country, and housing policies that price low-income Americans out of the housing market and segregate people of color in densely populated neighborhoods with lousy schools and housing and crumbling infrastructures.

Ferguson residents are also struggling with what Michelle Alexander aptly calls the “New Jim Crow” – decades-long ‘tough on crime’ policies that primarily targeted men of color and have led to the United States claiming the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. In 2012, one out of every 200 Missouri residents was in prison or jail serving a sentence of one year or longer. And, unlike in much of the rest of the country, Missouri’s prison population actually rose 1.3% in 2012. Incarceration rates for white men in Missouri in 2012 were 650.6 per 100,000. Among black men in it was nearly six times that: 3,640 per 100,000. Law enforcement personnel, like members of all three branches of government in Missouri, are overwhelmingly white.

Last year, Ferguson used municipal court fines to fund 20.2 percent of the city’s $12.75 million budget. (Just two years earlier, municipal court fines had accounted for only 12.3 percent of the city’s revenues.) Incarceration rates specifically for Ferguson are not available. But, statistics posted on the Ferguson municipal website hint at the facts on the ground. In 2012 (the last year for which data are posted) Ferguson exhibited a striking gender imbalance in its population.

Male population 9,279  (43.9%)
Female population 11,856  (56.1%)

Women do live longer than men in most of the world, but the gender disparity in Ferguson is more in line with war zones – with countries like Liberia that have experienced lengthy civil wars — than with American “suburbs.” If I had to make an educated guess as to the whereabouts of the missing men I’d guess dead or in jail. The face-off in the photo above certainly makes that guess plausible.

For What It’s Worth

We Americans like to believe that “this kind of thing” could never happen “here.” We’re shocked by the egregious killing of a young man in Ferguson, by the outraged community response and by the overtly militarized law-enforcement response. We’re less shocked by the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of Ebola in places like Liberia. But – as we’ve seen over the past few weeks – the systemic inequalities that give rise to poverty  and disease “over there” also drive anger, distrust and mass incarceration right here in America.

With a nod to the Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 masterpiece: “There’s something happening here / What it is ‘IS’ exactly clear / There’s a man with a gun over there / Telling me I got to beware / I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound / Everybody look what’s going down.”

Please check out my new book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility

And for more on the social context of responses to the Ebola outbreak check out: Ebola and US and Ebola, Secret Serums and Me