Don’t Get Sick Behind Bars

This week, I have found myself amidst two poles: the absurd arrest, lack of monitoring in jail, and death of Sandra Bland in Texas, and the joyous #BlackLivesMatter gathering in Cleveland July 24-26, where blacktivist men and women are meeting to plan next steps of a growing movement.

And yet, also in the news, not quite as prominent, but certainly populous amidst claims that Sandra Bland was depressed, are the infuriating and tragic stories of people who are sick or plagued with some kind of mental illness and are not getting adequate treatment behind bars.

Mentally ill behind barsPhoto Courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder

I come to these stories with experience. When I taught at Framingham MCI in Massachusetts I watched Dolly, a prisoner who I wrote about in Shakespeare Behind Bars, worry about her heath. First she was sent to have a mammogram and was waist-chained and handcuffed on the way, only to sit in a one-way mirrored room at the hospital for almost eight hours. No mammogram. Nothing but waiting. Dolly swore she’d never go back, damn the cancer, because who could stand such humiliation? Then, when she finally got out of prison, she had heart problems—all from lack of care. Dolly ended up dying in her 70’s, way too young, but not surprising, considering that 55 is borderline geriatric behind bars.

But at least Dolly got out of prison. Mamie, another student, tripped and fell on a prison walkway when moving from one unit to another. It took a while to get guards to respond to the fall, she later told me, and others concurred. She had been complaining about pains and ignored for weeks. Again, diagnosed with cancer. This time, she died before she could get out— in a hospital, alone, without her family.

So, when I read stories, like the one in Newsweek this week, entitled “Don’t Get Cancer if You’re in Prison,” I echo back to images of Mamie in a hospital bed and Dolly storming into our class from that awful hospital van ride. And I echo back to my own breast cancer more than fifteen years ago, where I immediately had help from friends and family, excellent medical care, a good prognosis, and follow-up treatment. Today I am as healthy as I ever have been.

But not so for so many who suffer such a gruesome disease in prison. The story of Manfred Dehe, reported in that Newsweek article, stated he had to beg health care workers at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Eyman for health care. It took Dehe six months to get an exam that proved he had metastatic prostate cancer after blood tests were alarmingly elevated. Likewise, a California prisoner, Ferdinand Dix, “complained for two years of lung cancer symptoms such as chronic cough and shortness of breath, and tested positive for tuberculosis—but never received proper treatment.”

“There is little public investment in correctional health care systems, and generally speaking neither public nor private providers can offer competitive salaries to prison health care workers,” wrote Victoria Bekiempis. Problematic too are privatized prison health care groups like Wexford Health Sources and Corizon, considered to be in it for the money—both well-aware of Dehe’s symptoms, said the Newsweek article.

Massachusetts’s Deborah DiMasi, the wife of convicted former House Speaker Sal DiMasi has gone on record over and over that she fears her husband will die in prison. I wrote about Sal DiMasi for Boston Magazine delineating the poor treatment he received behind bars in 2013. On July 13, 2015, his wife told WGBH her husband waited for a biopsy for three months. “There was seven months of time that his cancer was allowed to spread, and it did spread. So that to me is just so inhumane.”

As I wrote in 2013, we should be giving treatment to sick and dying prisoners. And Massachusetts should be supporting medical release in dire cases for the ill and elderly. Per my online article in Boston Magazine about DiMasi, “more than forty states have some sort of medical release provision. According to Modern Healthcare, an online news weekly, Michigan has managed to release 100 elderly and infirm prisoners since 2008.” In Massachusetts it costs more than $68,000 to house a state prisoner who is sick and dying,  “If those 100 prisoners were released and lived for one year beyond their release, it would mean a savings of $6.8 million.”

Which brings me to another occurrence this week: why the Massachusetts Legislature needs to support an override by the governor to Prisoners’ Legal Services’ (PLS) budget. While PLS is a nonprofit, its biggest source of funding is its contract with the Masschusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Governor Charlie Baker vetoed 12% (over $190,000) of PLS’ appropriation last Friday.

Among many of the things PLS has done for prisoners in Massachusetts, it has championed H.1628 / S.843, a medical release bill which would be cost effective at a time when every dollar counts. This bill has not yet had a hearing, but it is a no brainer, in my opinion. And it is one drop in the bucket of the painstaking work that PLS does for prisoners.

I urge Massachusetts people to contact their representatives by MONDAY, JULY 27th, and say they want them to override Governor Baker’s veto of $194,504 for Prisoners’ Legal Services (0321-2100). You can also call the Speaker and the House Ways and Means Chairman:  the Speaker’s office (617.722.2500) and the office of Chairman Dempsey (617.722.2990) voicing your support for an override.

Meanwhile, prisoners are sick and dying, disappearing as my friend Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, says. They are disappearing behind walls, bars, chains, locks, and silence. When we can speak out, we must. It is our freedom, our right, our obligation.

Activism Matters

Most activists hope that if we take steps to make change, we are helping to create new policies or programs, and along with them, more social justice. And I am no different. I want to see laws changed, and advocate, write, and blog in order to accomplish as much as I can.

But this week I had the occasion to see how activism matters, not only for these reasons. It matters because taking action is often what we must do, we are compelled to do, because on a personal level, if we don’t do something to stand up for what we believe in, it will not feel right in our bones.

When the massacre occurred in Charleston and thesilentjp1 nine African American men

 Photo courtesy of Universal Hub. I am 4th from the right.

and women were slain while praying, I wanted to do something to speak out against hate, racism, and what I see was an act of terrorism. The First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain was having a silent vigil on June 18th, the evening after the murders, and thanks to Jason Lydon, founder of Black and Pink, I heard about it on twitter. It didn’t matter that I live 45 minutes away. I needed to be with like minds and hearts.

When I arrived at the church, I found a very inclusive congregation where diversity is welcomed. The pastor, Rev. Ashlee Wiest, was asking people who had gathered on the lawn to make signs. The signs were to suggest our feelings or thoughts about the massacre. I was so filled with feelings, I had to create two signs to express them. Some people lit candles, and others huddled together. Without speaking, we faced the street, so buses and people walking by could stop or see our expression of grief and outrage, and so others might join us. The Reverend eventually spoke eloquently about racism and its relationship to mass incarceration, about the tyranny of the Confederate flag, and about the need to end hate. She pledged to keep up all the signs in the church. Later, I learned she had marched in Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed.

But her words, while causing most of us to tear up, were not the main lesson of the evening.

We all sat together in silence. No cellphones. No computers. No loved ones calling to us. Nothing but a community of mourners, all speaking loudly through our pain and our signs, saying that we will not stand idly by. As I watched people staring at us, stopping to take our photos, nodding somberly, or giving us the thumbs up, I knew that the alleged killer, Dylann Roof, does not define the America I stand for. We were a force, those seventy-five or so of us, and we had power in our intent to right wrong.

This was echoed today by President Obama in his eulogy when he talked of grace and its power: “As a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind….Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness. It would not an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.”

I drove home that night with hope in my heart.

Then, a few days later, on June 23rd,  I joined another group action. Only this time, I was doing it by myself, in another part of the state. It was an action to bring attention to the barbaric practice of solitary confinement. While the Coalition for Effective Policy of which I am a member, was in downtown Boston, chalking the size of a cell, and writing facts about the brutal 23 out 24 hours that most in solitary are confined daily, I did the same in Lowell.

Jean.SolitaryAction.LowellI felt totally connected to my cohorts in Boston when I handed out leaflets, chalked the cell, and talked about the horror of Massachusetts being one of three states that allows people to stay in solitary for up to ten years. I met people who had been in solitary, a man from the organization called “Neighbor to Neighbor,” who was involved in his own brand of activism, an attorney who said “I’ve put 100s in there,” (and proceeded to brush me off),  someone who told me “Stay in that cell,” many who were sympathetic, a few who promised to call their legislators, and dozens that took the flyers, read them, and said that they agreed. There were a few who stopped and engaged me in conversation like the young student skate-boarder above. It was activism because it was education; awareness can lead to change.

Sometimes, knowing that people are committed with you, even if they are not standing or sitting along side of you, is enough. I needed to connect to my deeper self this week, and imagine I was not alone in that quest.

Let’s Get Rid of Failed Punishment Policies

On Tuesday, June 9th, more than 500 people filled Gardner Auditorium at the
Massachusetts State House to listen to testimony and speak out about mandatory minimum sentencing (man.min.) and bail reform. The hearing, in front of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, lasted more than eight hours—and at 9:15 p.m. there were still some hardy souls to hear and give testimony although only three committee members stayed til the bitter end. There were so many who flocked the State House that guards weren’t letting them in, as they cautioned Steve O’Neill from Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement,”There are way more than 600 people in there.”

StatehouseforMan.MinBy far, most attendees were there to decry the injustices in our system including egregious long sentences for drug crimes, and punishment for those not yet tried who have suffered the indignity of incarceration because they could not afford bail. The bills most discussed were: S.786 H.1620, An Act to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences related to drug offenses; S.64 & H.1429 An Act to increase neighborhood safety and opportunity; and S.802 & H.1584, An Act reforming pretrial process.

The bills were heard before thirteen legislators led by Senator William Brownsberger and Representative John V. Fernandes, who listened and asked questions, and took submitted written testimony. Their charge is to vote bills out of committee—or not—and so the hearings are an opportunity for the public to be heard.

Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Ralph Gants, was the first to testify and he spoke eloquently when he said that racial justice insists we reconsider the failed policy of mandatory minimum sentencing, or what he called “a one-size-fits-all approach.” This is what the #BlackLivesMatter movement has also made crystal clear: people of color get harsher sentences and are incarcerated with greater frequency than whites. Additionally, the drug kingpin and the drug courier may get the same sentences because of these laws, and taxpayers are feeling it, Gants added, saying our incarceration rate is now five times higher than it was in 1975 when our crime rate was not much different than it is today.

While Massachusetts is apparently 48th in the nation with our incarceration rate, as Representative Paul Heroux pointed out, it’s not exactly a prizewinner to be the best of the worst: the U.S. is the world’s leading jailer at 2.4 million people in prisons and jails. He also said that “Longer sentences do not reduce recidivism…We do not need mandatory minimums.”

Many others who attended the hearing also brought home important points about over-zealous incarceration. Barbara Dougan, director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), said dealers and addicts are not necessarily different groups of people.One FAMM member spoke passionately from first-hand experience with the “one-size-fits-all” approach. Bonnie DiToro was sentenced to an overly harsh 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for being in the next room during a drug deal. Michelle Collette submitted written testimony that she plea bargained for 7 years instead of receiving 15 to 20 for drug trafficking—in spite of getting clean while on bail and despite the judge believing her sentence was too stiff. She said, “What I did was wrong and I deserved to be punished. But we also need to ask: How much time? Mandatory minimum laws don’t let us ask that question.”

SmallDouganBarbara Dougan, Learn to Cope founder Joanne Peterson, Bonnie DiToro, and Robert Harnais, President-Elect of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

The DAs attempted to lay out reasons why we should keep man.mins in Massachusetts, but it was surprising to hear how their information was vehemently contradicted by others. Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley who spoke most for the four men representing Massachusetts prosecutors, “I am opposed and we all are opposed to the elimination of mandatory minimum drug laws, because it is not a new idea for the future.” Embarrassingly, he said he questioned Judge Gants’s facts, made a bizarre reference to the growth of the “of-color population” (or “off color population,” as I heard it), said “public policy should not be based on academic theories,” and despite the outcry of the large number of people in the room, stated there was no “groundswell” for repealing mandatory minimums.

Senator Cynthia Creem nailed it when she refuted the DAs with this comment: “Why would you think giving discretion to prosecutors is fairer than giving discretion to judges?” She called their demand to keep man.min. “a power play.”

Retired Superior Court Judge Carol Ball added to that point when she asked “Who do we prefer to make sentencing policy?” meaning the judges or the district attorneys. Ball refuted the idea that “judges will willy nilly release people to the street” if they get discretion. Right now she sees lengthy warehousing in prisons with man.mins. and expressed the frustration that judges feel with a policy that still echoes the tough on crime era: everyone remembers former Governor William Weld’s admonition that prisoners should be introduced to the “joys of busting rocks.”

Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, pointed out that 86 percent of Massachusetts residents “strongly support or somewhat support” giving judges more discretion in the courtroom to impose sentences that they feel fits the crime. Matthew Segal, legal director of the Massachusetts ACLU, said “The one constant has been that mandatory minimum sentences never distinguish serious offenses from minor ones.” A panel of Massachusetts sheriffs also strongly favored getting rid of man.mins. and/or supported bail reform. Former prosecutor Dylan Hayre said he acted as both judge  and jury when he used mandatory minimums as a lure to get the same sentence for two clients with radically different crimes. Rahsaan Hall, also former prosecutor and current Deputy Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justices, said in his work, he saw no deterrent effect with mandatory mimimums, and that the racial disparities he saw in his Suffolk County prosecutions “defied a reasonable explanation.”

0609_mandatory-sentencing-protest03Prior to the hearing, activists from Jobs Not Jails flanked the halls and marched through the State House to bring attention to the waste of money and resources spent incarcerating rather than helping people find jobs, get treatment, and stay in their communities. Members, including community builders, religious leaders and those from labor unions, as well as formerly incarcerated men and women, also testified against unjust sentencing laws.

The day on social media was packed with the necessity of de-incarceration and the truth that a distinction between a so-called “non violent offender” and “violent criminal” is often a false one: as several people tweeted when listening to men and women who have turned their lives around. My thought, especially when the DAs were talking: a violent act does not a violent person forever make. Rep. Mary S. Keefe, flanked with Rep. Ben Swan and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, others who filed legislation with Keefe, disputed the panel of DAs: “Drug traffickers are clearly not the violent people we say they are.”

In testimony for bail reform, Sen. Kenneth J. Donnelly, surrounded by members of the Harm Reduction Caucus of the Legislature, forcefully said “The pretrial system is dysfunctional.” He called for “risk assessment” to determine dangerousness, “a limitation on the use of cash bail,”  and creation of pretrial services. Rep. Thomas Sannicandro also spoke for bail reform saying that it is certainly an important way to reduce our prison population.

Massachusetts Probation Chief Edward Dolan spoke out for bail reform and wants pretrial services to become a division under the probation department. There is some controversy among advocates about the wisdom of putting those who have not been found guilty under the supervision of a department that works with convicted persons.

A number of articles have recently appeared about bail reform and some have solutions that legislators might take into consideration. The New York Times detailed how when bail is out of reach, other costs mount. A federal court in St. Louis recently ended the practice of cash bail for all residents of a St. Louis county.  Per an article in Think Progress about the St. Louis ruling,  “In strong, sweeping language, the agreement declares, ‘No person may, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, be held in custody after an arrest because the person is too poor to post a monetary bond.'” The burden of bail is elegantly detailed in this video, and comedian, John Oliver, skewers the US system of money bail in this HBO clip. Last year for Boston Magazine online, I wrote about our addiction to bail jails. Recently, an important article from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston showed how one is guilty until proven innocent with bail.

Norma Wassel,  a member of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said that “We continue to be a state that maintains a dual system of justice, one for the poor and one for those with money.” She noted the Missouri decision said “cash bail is unnecessary.” She wants to make sure pretrial detainees are dealt with separately from convicted prisoners” i.e. not treated as already guilty of a crime. She referred the committee to a report written by Tim Schnacke of the Center for Legal and Evidence-Based Practices that lays out the similarities and differences in pretrial release and probation.

The best quote I’ve found on why we need to reform bail came from a recent tweet from the New York Times, and this quote also points to why we need new ideas in Massachusetts. Our current practice of bail?