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?


Home Confinement After Prison

[ File # csp3134430, License # 2859884 ] Licensed through in accordance with the End User License Agreement ( (c) Can Stock Photo Inc. / tritoothImage courtesy of Wallin and Klarich

In his final “Letter to Loretto,” CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, who served two years in a federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania, wrote about all the things he would not miss in prison. He’d pled guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA) in 2012 when he confirmed the name of an officer involved in the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program to a reporter.

Kiriakou wrote that among other things, he certainly wouldn’t miss “staff lies;” COs who are “bullies and punks” and those who harassed his visitors; waiting for 4 days to send or receive an email from his family or attorneys because he was considered “dangerous;” fighting to get mail; and in a later letter, after he’d been released, he said that there had been “a trollish prison employee” who tried to to set him up just as he was leaving.

But one of his worst experiences was when he was actually released: dealing with the number of inane rules for those exiting from prison, so they supposedly won’t re-offend. From the day of his release on February 3 until the end of his house arrest on May 1, he couldn’t leave his house except to go to Hope Village, a halfway house, where he was supposed to be learning life skills—besides having a family, this man had a BA and an MA from George Washington University; he couldn’t leave except to seek or do work, or to visit the doctor. He wrote, “What I [also] couldn’t do was go to PTA meetings, my children’s school events, their sporting events, or enter a private home.” The rules almost cost him a job until he finally got permission to drive because commuting from his home to Hope Village took up 6 hours of his day!

Andrea James, founder and director of Families for Justice as Healing, had been a well established practicing attorney, also with a good job and a family, before her own crazy experiences kicked in behind bars. And leaving Danbury Prison where she served 24 months, was similar to Kiriakou. While behind bars, she had written her now-published book, Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts On the Politics of Mass Incarceration. When she left the jail, she began 3 months of home confinement. She wrote in an email:

“I was denied any halfway house time although it could have brought me back to Boston and closer to my children almost 6 months sooner than later. On the day I was released from Danbury, after being handcuffed and walked through the prison to the area where you start and end your prison stay, known as R&D, I was stripped searched one last time. My one box I was leaving with that only contained my book manuscript was searched, and I was finally allowed to walk out of the front door. My family met me in the parking lot and we drove from Danbury to the McGraph Halfway House at 699 Mass Ave. in Boston. I was told that although I was denied halfway house time and was kept in Danbury for most of my sentence, I was given a few hours to get from Danbury, CT to McGraph House to check-in and arrange my schedule, including a payment schedule for the halfway house, for the next three months, as I had to report to them weekly.

After arriving however, as my family waited for me to check in and then return to the car and finally to home, I was told that I would not be allowed to leave the halfway house that day and could be held there for up to three days because the staff needed to do a home visit before I would be allowed to return home, even after being approved for home confinement by the prison and federal probation, who had already conducted a series of home visits and back ground checks on everyone in my home. My children were devastated when I had to yell to them from the doorway of the halfway house (I was not allowed to step out of the halfway house to go back to the car), that I could not yet return home with them.”

James wrote, “The rest of the story is very much like the one told in the article about home confinement, reporting weekly to a halfway house, receiving phones calls from the halfway house all hours of the day and night, everyday, even at 3am, to make sure I was in my home, peeing in a cup in front of strangers (even though I had no prior drug related issues), and constant visits to my home by federal probation, including home searches including even my children’s bedrooms.

The women who had to live in the halfway house had a much more difficult time as they were caught in a ridiculous cycle of not being allowed to leave the halfway house unless they were going to a job interview or job. Not an easy thing to arrange if you’re not allowed to leave. Most of these women had been incarcerated in far-a-way federal prisons for the past 5-10 years. None of it made any sense and was incredibly frustrating to the women. Many wanted to be returned to the prison they came from to wait for their home-confinement date as they felt they had more freedom in the prison. This of course was not allowed because most women are not approved for home-confinement. It’s really a mess and grossly ineffective and costly, mostly to the women who have to pay the halfway house for living there at the one most important time they need their money, if they manage to find employment, to find housing.”

And so it goes, our re-entry system at its finest.

Keep Kids Out of Handcuffs

I have a new post on Truthout. My new article is “Keep Kids Out of Handcuffs” It begins like this:
“The handcuffs just slipped off her wrists; in fact, Desre’e Watson was so small that they had to handcuff her by her biceps to haul her down to the station, the Florida police chief told The New York Times in 2007. No one could calm her tantrum, so the cops charged her with battery on a school official, disruption of a school function, and resisting a law officer. She was fingerprinted, had a mug shot taken and was kept briefly in a jail cell. She was 6 years old.”

On the Anniversary of Anti-Shackling

pregnantwomanjailImage via ColorLines

“It blows my mind that I have to sign a law for that,” Massachusetts former governor Deval Patrick said in May 2014, after he signed into law the Act to Prevent Shackling and Promote Safe Pregnancies for Female Inmates in Massachusetts. The law was groundbreaking in that it both protected women’s health behind bars and forbid shackling of pregnant prisoners.

Currently 29 states still allow women behind bars to be shackled during birth. This occurs, in spite of the fact, reported by the Women’s Media Center (WMC) in March 2015, that “this practice has been condemned by many medical and international humanitarian organizations, including the American Medical Association, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Committee Against Torture.” WMC added that it wasn’t until 2000 that merely “one state—Illinois—enacted legislation restricting the use of restraints.”

According to the Massachusetts Anti-Shackling Coalition, the 2014 Massachusetts law went beyond banning shackling and aimed to insure a “safe healthy pregnancy, birth experience and postpartum recovery, including prenatal care, adequate nutrition, and support during labor and birth.” So would it blow Governor Patrick’s  mind, if he were to learn that indeed the law to support pregnant prisoners is not being followed in many of the places we incarcerate women throughout the state?

Barbaric restraints that never should have been used in the first place are still in use. According to Judge Nancy Gertner, in a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, shackles and waist chains for pregnant women are “unconstitutional…a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.” Vans without seat belts are still employed to transport women to and from jails. The statute is clear: no restraints except for handcuffs up front, but facilities are not following the law, in spite of the fact that statute forbids shackles “except in extraordinary circumstances,” and as Judge Gertner clarified, “even then, without leg or waist restraints.” Healthy pregnancies, how are they faring behind bars? Early results seem to indicate that violations of the statute on that front are also alive and well. Healthy diets and suitable clothing and undergarments are not being provided.

Two major advocacy groups, Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS) and Prison Birth Project (PBP) interviewed women who were pregnant, and some who gave birth in the last year, since the law went into effect. A few of their experiences, reported anonymously, show the ways the law is not being followed:

  • “I took a shower after the birth and they put me back in bed and shackled me to the bed by my left ankle. I said it was against the law, but the female C.O. said she had never heard of that. She called the jail and whoever she talked to also said they never heard of it. So I stayed shackled to the bed.”
  • “It was very uncomfortable in the back of the vans. You’d slide everywhere, it was a very bumpy ride. It was scary. I would sometimes get cramps on those rides. Me and another pregnant girl who was having twins would talk about whether we’d go into labor in the van itself. We would joke around as a way to deal with how awful it was.”
  • “I hate being this pregnant, being hungry and only having access to an extra cheese sandwich. Knowing what I do about being pregnant I know I should be eating more fresh vegetables.”

Lauren Petit, an attorney from PLS, in an interview, said that when the law was passed, jails and Department of Correction (DOC) prisons received the language of the statute—no more, no less. They were to do their own implementation, and by “they”—all the county facilities that transport women, like Essex, and those that house them including jails in the counties of Bristol, Barnstable, Hampden, Suffolk, as well as the Department of Correction state prisons—Framingham MCI and South Middlesex.

Petit said that stopping the shackling of pregnant prisoners is “a huge culture shock” for correction officers. Jails have to train their officers but it seems that most do not have polices in place to do so. Petit said results are varied and inconsistent. “Chicopee Jail in Hampden County has done a good job of training in some areas”—(my note: They better, considering the recent video camera suit they lost)—but, Bristol, under Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, said Petit, is doing a “terrible job.”  Bristol often transports pregnant women in vans with no seat belts. Chicopee sometimes won’t let women go to appointments because, although they know the law, there are no seat belts in that day’s available van.

Petit added that DOC has a different responsibility than the jails per the statute. She said, The DOC “was to put together a set of minimum health care standards and consult the Department Public Health and the Massachusetts sheriffs.” But have they done this? “I can’t say 100% that they have not done it but so far it seems like they have not,” said Petit. The DOC has been unresponsive to her records’ requests.

By the end of May, Petit, Marianne Bullock, co-founder of the Prison Birth Project, and Rachel Roth, women’s health policy expert, will release a report to describe compliance throughout the state. Roth said she was heartened to discover more women behind bars than she expected had heard about the law and were educating others. She is also working on outreach to make sure everyone knows about the statute, including defense attorneys and medical professionals.

The upcoming report is a result of funding that PLS and the PBP recently received from the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH) to monitor implementation of the Massachusetts law.  In an email from Roth, the NIRH was described as working “to promote reproductive rights and expand access to reproductive health care through bold advocacy, creative education campaigns, and high-impact partnerships.”

An email from Marianne Bullock said that funding will also allow the Prison Birth Project “to engage formerly incarcerated women and allies to educate community members about their rights” as well as to allow PBP to work with pregnant women in jail. Bullock and the PBP plan “to ensure that rights are respected under the new law,” and to work on advocacy with the jail administration “to update its practices and policies to reflect the provisions of the law.”

Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the ACLU of Massachusetts, in the above noted article by Women’s Media Center, spoke of the importance of this law: “Women’s experiences giving birth matter. It’s also important to make a public policy statement that this is not okay. We shouldn’t have to make this kind of statement of principle in legislation because it’s so obviously unacceptable treatment, but apparently we do.”

But until the law is followed as it should be, we are left with the fury of this law’s violations. Just after Mother’s Day, and here we are with the Massachusetts Anti-Shackling Coalition‘s insistence that we tend to our mothers behind bars: “The Commonwealth has made a commitment to health care for all, which promotes the well-being of pregnant women and gives every baby a healthy start in life. We call on the Secretary of Public Safety to ensure that the state Department of Correction and all county Sheriffs fully comply with the law and take seriously the health and treatment of pregnant women who are incarcerated.”