The longer I’m in this movement, the more I learn about every aspect of prison life. Solitary, SHU [special housing unit], the hole, the box, or whatever you call it, is not much of a life. Deprived of most sensory experiences in life and often with the only regular human contact, antagonistic, outside of your door, solitary can drive a sane person mad, and a mad person to self-destruction and deeper madness.
The public is invited to view a powerful informative 45 minute play that dramatizes these realities, based on the letters of a woman in solitary for nearly three years.
It will be performed Thursday, March 24, 8 pm, at the Milford Performing Arts Center, 150 Main St., Milford. Admission is free, donations accepted. Reserve free tickets here: http://tinyurl.com/Mariposa-MASS
Other performances in the Boston area are as follows: Wednesday, March 23, 7 pm at the Jacob Sleeper Auditorium, lower level, Room 129, 871 Commonwealth Ave., Boston; Friday, March 25, 8 pm, Suffolk University Law School, 120 Tremont St., Boston; and Saturday, March 26, 6:45 pm, First Church in Roxbury, 10 Putnam St., Roxbury. For information, go to http://www.juliasteeleallen.com/portfolio/mariposa/
The play is co-sponsored by Prisoners Legal Services, Coalition for Effective Public Safety, EMIT, End Mass Incarceration Together, a task force of UU Mass Action Network and host venues. For information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or Susan Tordella at 978-772-3930. More information on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/170428996672052/
The shows are part of a week-long series of events to raise awareness about the inhumanity of being confined in a sterile environment the size of an elevator or parking space, for months, years and decades. The USA boasts an estimated 80,000 people in solitary. Because of the veil of secrecy shrouding most prisons, the true number is unknown.
To support criminal justice reform, you can contact members of the Judiciary Committee of Massachusetts before the June 9 hearing and if possible, attend hearing at Gardner auditorium at 1 pm. EPOCA will be sponsoring buses and possibly a rally before the hearing.
Justice will be restored and our prison population reduced ONLY through a series of bills passed over a number of years. In January, state legislators introduced many bills for justice reform for the 2015-16 session on Beacon Hill. The next step is for the Judiciary Committee [and other committees] to hold hearings and a favorable reference for each bill so it can be debated and voted on the floors of the Senate and House on Beacon Hill.
You can have impact by attending the hearing, and/or through calls, letters and especially face-to-face visits with your legislator. See this link for a list of Judiciary Committee members. Even if your legislator is not on the Judiciary Committee, you can still call and write to the members and advocate they support reform.
- Repeal Mandatory Minimums – (S 786 Creem) (H 1620 Swan) to allow judges to determine sentences to fit the crime for drug offenders. These laws contribute to the cost of prison and jails, and to their overcrowding.
- Pre-trial and Bail reform – (S 802 Donnelly) (H 1584 Sannicandro), to transition from a bail system based on ability to pay, to a system to determine if someone is not a danger to others, and will show up for court.
- Implement restorative justice programs – (S 71 Eldridge) (H 1313 Garbally), to provide an opportunity for offenders to repair the harm caused by the event, as opposed to punishment and incarceration.
- Extraordinary Medical Placement – (S 843 Jehlen) (H 1628 Toomey), to release terminally ill inmates to the community. The state spends an inordinate amount of resources to care for seriously ill incarcerated people who are no longer are a threat to public safety. We are one of the few states without this law.
- End collateral sanctions at the Registry of Motor Vehicles – (S 1812 Chandler) (H 3039 Malia), to remove the penalty that a drug offender loses driving privileges for up to five years and pays $500 or more to reinstate.
- An act to Increase Neighborhood Safety and Opportunity – (S 64 Chang-Diaz) (H 1429 Keefe). This Omnibus Bill will improve the Commonwealth’s criminal justice system, and re-invest in education and job training.
- Caregivers bill—(H 1382 Holmes) to establish community-based sentencing alternatives for primary caretakers of dependent children, charged with non-violent crimes, to alleviate harm to families and communities.
- Solitary confinement – (S 1255 Eldridge) (H 1475 Malia) to ensure appropriate use of segregation in prisons and jails that will also reduce recidivism and curb unnecessary spending.
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, That’s 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 candrive 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. Also those 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 is not just a physical place, but a deep wound.
Posted March 28, 2015 by Jean Trounstine, who is an activist, author and professor at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Massachusetts who worked at Framingham Women’s Prison for ten years where she directed eight plays with prisoners. Her highly-praised book about that work, Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison has been featured on NPR,The Connection, Here and Now, and in numerous print publications here and abroad. In addition, she has spoken around the world on women in prison, co-founded the women’s branch of Changing Lives Through Literature, an award-winning alternative sentencing program featured inThe New York Times and on The Today Show, and co-authored two books about the program. She published a book of poetry, Almost Home Free, and co-edited the New England best-seller, Why I’m Still Married: Women Write Their Hearts Out On Love, Loss, Sex, and Who Does the Dishes. Jean is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety in Massachusetts and is currently working on a new book about the tragedy of sentencing juveniles to adult prisons.
That’s Rep. Niki Tsongas, right, with me, prison reform advocate Susan Tordella, left, April 7 at an opening reception with about 50 other people from Massachusetts who came to D.C. for the event. It was an opportunity to hear from many of our congressional representatives, including Senators Markey and Warren, as well as several representatives such as Capuano and Neal. Some of them had stronger awareness than others about the USA as the top-incarcerating nation in the world. The follow up is to send copies of “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander to all 11 Massachusetts congressional representatives.