Tag Archives: reform

Post CSG- we need you at May 15 meeting

From Mass. Criminal Justice Reform Coalition

“There is no issue more worthy of our efforts, and no time left for inaction.”
Massachusetts is at a crossroads. For years, leaders at the highest levels of state government have been promising to take on comprehensive criminal justice reform; to mine the data, to develop policies based on what we need and what is proven to work, and to bring these proposals forward for a vote. In the summer of 2015, we saw a first step in this direction when the Speaker of the House, the Senate President, the Governor, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court united to commission the Council of State Governments (CSG) to review and analyze our criminal justice system data and the outcomes we are producing.
 What the CSG found was staggering. Fewer than half of those incarcerated in state prisons complete the recidivism-reduction programming recommended for them prior to their release. People involved in the criminal justice system (at every stage) have high substance abuse and/or mental health treatment needs that are going unaddressed. Our state lacks a standardized system for collecting data at all levels of the justice system, making tracking trends and outcomes difficult. Of course, making changes to all of these aspects of our system should be a priority.
 
But what the CSG didn’t find, or rather, what it was never tasked with looking into, is just as troubling. Absent from the CSG study was any focus on front-end problems, like the cash-bail and pretrial process, or sentencing reforms, like eliminating mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases and raising the felony threshold for low-level property crimes. Without a holistic look at how our justice system operates, from the beginning of the pipeline to the end, we are bound to continue the kinds of costly, racially disproportionate, and unjust policies that have brought us to the realities we’re facing today.
 
While Massachusetts is sometimes lauded for a low overall incarceration rate compared to other states, we must look, again, at what this perspective leaves out. Incarceration in every US state is significantly higher than in many other countries. Our own incarceration rate has tripled since the 1980s, before the “tough on crime” era picked up steam, and exceeds that of China, Canada, and Germany by significant margins. For some perspective, if the Bay State was a country, we’d be among the top 15% highest per capita incarcerators in the world.
 
Where our own residents are concerned, decades of racially biased sentencing policies have had an overwhelming and irrefutable impact on communities of color, both in regard to the individuals we are locking up and to the neighborhoods they leave behind. While Blacks and Latinos make up less than one-fifth of the state population, they account for more than half of the incarcerated population in our state, and they represent about 75% of those convicted of drug crimes that carry a mandatory minimum sentence. Addressing these issues must also be a priority.
 
Following the release of the CSG report in February, which provided a starting point of “low hanging fruit” criminal justice investments, and looking forward to the public hearings on a variety of criminal justice proposals slated to commence in the coming months, we must make a collective decision to make comprehensive reform a real priority. We must fight for a package that includes pretrial and sentencing reforms at its core, and we must do it this session.
 
I was proud to join my colleagues in the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, the House Progressive Caucus, the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus, and the Women’s Caucus’s Justice Involved Women’s Task Force at a press conference last week to stake out this agenda in the legislature. It is going to take a significant effort on our part to maintain this momentum, and to work with House and Senate Leadership to craft legislation that will accomplish our goals. But there is no issue more worthy of our efforts, and no time left for inaction.
Sonia Chang-Diaz    State Senator, Second Suffolk District
Register for the fourth annual Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Policy Summit
 
May 15, 20178:30am-12:00pm
Omni Parker House, Boston
The annual Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Summit brings together 300 leaders from around the Commonwealth interested in comprehensive reform. Participants include elected officials, policy makers, public safety and corrections officials, advocates, and civic and religious leaders from Massachusetts and beyond. Learn more…

 

This documentary on solitary is powerful & memorable

Maine and Mississippi have both reduced use of solitary, also known as “segregation” or “SHU-Special Housing Unit,” by 70 to 80 percent. We are rallying to end this cruel and unusual punishment in Massachusetts that typically makes matters worse instead of better.

PBS Frontline has crafted a powerful 2-hour documentary, “Last Days of Solitary” available online for free. What makes this film so remarkable is that it humanizes the most dangerous and difficult to reach people who are incarcerated, and it takes us behind the barbed wire into places usually hidden from the public.

The camera brings us face-to-face with caged people in Maine, while officials transitioned 92 people back to general population over a few years, leaving eight in the unit. The new approach saves the state an estimated $1 million a year because staffing solitary is so labor intensive.

This film is a must-see. Even watching 30 minutes will inform you on why and how we can change this practice often negatively impacts people for years, and does NOT necessarily add to institutional security.

Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts, a champion of rights of the incarcerated, created a 7 minute video of testimonies from Massachusetts residents who have suffered the torture of solitary.

Here is a sampling of bills Massachusetts activists are endorsing during the 2017-18 session. Please contact your state legislator, set up a face-to-face meeting and encourage him/her to support the bills.

Solitary Confinement Reform (S.1306/H.3071)

Lead Sponsors: Sen. Cynthia Creem, Rep. Ruth Balser, Sen. Jamie Eldridge, Rep. Russell Holmes . These bills would end the practice of sentencing prisoners to long periods of isolated confinement. They would divert vulnerable groups (youth, pregnant women, those deaf, blind or in protective custody, prisoners with     serious mental illness or likely to deteriorate, away from solitary confinement.

To Collect Data Regarding Solitary Confinement in MA Prisons (S.1286/H.3092)

Lead Sponsors: Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Rep. Christopher Markey. Massachusetts corrections facilities are not required to make public information regarding our state’s solitary   confinement practices. This bill would require quarterly data relating to solitary confinement, including the age, disability status and racial composition of inmates, the length of time spent in solitary and the number of suicides.

Segregation Oversight (S.1297/H.2249)

Lead Sponsors: Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. Ruth Balser. This bill would create a solitary confinement oversight committee to review data and make recommendations on the use of solitary confinement in Massachusetts.

 Promote Humane Conditions of Confinement (S.1296 / H.2248)

Lead sponsors: Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. Ruth Balser. Vulnerable populations, including those who have serious mental illness, should not be placed in solitary confinement. Those who are placed into segregation should have full access to regular mental health treatment, facility programming, disability accommodations and other humane services.

 

Justice & Equity Conference Saturday

When:          Sat., Oct 1, 9:30 Registration, 10 am to 2:00 PM – Lunch Included.
Where:         All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church
                        196 Elm St,, Braintree – Handicap accessible, Free.
Who:              YOU – open to the public, along with activists

This is a crucial time in the struggle for equity, issues of faith and the need for action.

Presenters will discuss justice and corrections reform in Massachusetts and the anticipated impact of the Council of State Government Study with recommended reform in Dec. 2016.
Hear from a formerly incarcerated person on what it’s like to be at the mercy of the Commonwealth’s justice system; as well as alternatives to courts and prison, such as restorative justice, and what you can do to support sane alternatives.
Another panel inform people on the progress of the Fair Share Amendment and what you can do help get this passed.

Join us for lively discussion and plan to the next steps on how individuals, groups and congregations can join the movement for justice.
Save the date – What do sheriffs do and why should I care?
When:         Monday, Oct. 24, 7-8 pm
Where:         From the comfort of your own home
Call in:         605 475 5900  access 618-9987#
 
Why:            Find out how the 14 county sheriffs in Mass. impact the county jails and who                             is up for election.
Who:           Activist Angel Cosme of Brockton Interfaith  will share information on why                               voters must care about this powerful role that impacts incarceration and                                    recidivism.

The inhumanity of solitary

U.S. faith leaders push for prison reform of solitary confinement

Rev Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. Prisons Policy and Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, is pictured in a replica solitary confinement cell during the Ecumenical Advocacy Days event in 2015. Photo: CNS/Erin Schaff, courtesy Perisphere Media

The “SHU” is not much larger than a good-size bathroom.

The SHU, or special housing unit, was where Johnny Perez spent a total of three years – the longest period being 10 months – in solitary confinement during the 13 years he was in New York prisons for armed robbery.

The tiny cells where inmates are sent for breaking prison rules or misbehavior are also known by nicknames such as the box, the bing, punk city, the hole, the pound and lockdown.

Perez was sent to solitary for fighting, testing positive for marijuana and having a frying pan in his cell.

In solitary he was alone with his thoughts 23 hours a day, with an hour outdoors in a small caged area for exercise. Corrections officers who brought meals and conducted security checks offered his only human contact.

“If they’re not sociable then you won’t be having a conversation with them,” Perez said of the guards. “One didn’t even look me in the face. It’s hard that the only person you come in contact with doesn’t validate you as a human being.

“It was dehumanising.”

Perez, 37, made it through isolation with no debilitating psychological effects, unlike some others. He received “tons of magazine subscriptions” and two books a week – the maximum allowed – from his family and their church. He had writing materials so he could journal and also thought a lot about being elsewhere, far from the around-the-clock fluorescent-lit cell. He kept reminding himself, “I have to leave here the same as I came, that I don’t succumb to my environment.”

It was an environment where the men in neighbouring cells screamed, acted out their frustration in anger and cut themselves. And there was suicide.

About halfway through his sentence Perez began to realise “my mother didn’t give birth to me to sit in a jail cell”. He had a daughter who was born two days before he was arrested and he had barely seen her.

Perez enrolled in college classes while incarcerated, studying criminal justice and is set to graduate from St Francis College next year. His studies and change of heart helped prepare him for his first job when he was released from prison two and a half years ago. Today, he is a safe re-entry advocate with the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project in New York City helping the newly released adjust to life outside of prison.

He also is a vocal advocate for solitary confinement reform.

Perez’s stay in solitary was relatively short. Some incarcerated people have spent 30 years or more in isolation.

Advocates like Perez have joined their voices in a growing campaign to call attention to the wide use of solitary confinement nationwide. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people were held in isolation in 2014, said a report from the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called attention to the importance of the criminal justice system to rehabilitate people convicted of crimes and that imprisonment “should be about more than punishment” in its 2000 statementResponsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.

While the bishops did not address solitary confinement directly, they expressed a belief that prisons are places where human dignity must be respected.

Advocates for reform as well as psychologists say solitary confinement often destroys people rather than rehabilitates them.

The Washington-based National Religious Campaign Against Torture, of which the USCCB is a supporter, is one of numerous organisations calling for the end of solitary confinement.

Rev Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. prisons policy and program for the religious campaign, compared inmate isolation to torture, citing a 2011 United Nations finding.

“For us as people of faith, we really see this effort as a profoundly moral effort, that we would deny any person access to community, access to restorative justice, to, what I would say as a Methodist minister, access to redemption and a belief in God’s ability give us all a second and third and 23rd chance,” Rev Downton told Catholic News Service.

“There’s been a real acceptance that once someone is labeled a criminal that the standard of humanity and dignity would be removed from them,” she said. “The inherent God-given human dignity of the person doesn’t end at the prison doors.”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has produced a documentary on solitary confinement titled Breaking Down the Box. The organisation also has built a replica 1.8-metre-by-2.7-metre cell that it displays at programs.

In 2011, Juan E. Mendez, U.N. special rapporteur on torture with the Human Rights Council, called for a ban on solitary confinement except in exceptional circumstances and for no longer than 15 days. Mendez also said that in no case should the practice be used for juveniles and people with mental disabilities.

In January, President Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons. He said the practice is overused and can “worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones”.

Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has researched the psychological effects of incarceration. He has found that segregated prisoners deprived of normal human interaction reportedly suffer from mental illnesses including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators did not respond to requests for comment.

Bills to limit solitary confinement have been introduced in several states in response to concerns raised by once incarcerated people and psychologists. They have met with mixed results.

Catholic leadership on the issue, particularly by Catholic Mobilising Network, the New York State Catholic Conference and the California Catholic Conference has helped obtain gradual shifts in inmate isolation practices, Downton said.

In New York, the bishops in 2000 called upon state officials to “avoid extreme forms of confinement and abusive punishment” in its statement Restoring All the Fullness of Life: A Pastoral Statement on Criminal Justice. In April, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany addressed the need for reform of solitary confinement in a column in the Times Union.

The New York Catholic conference also backs the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. The bill would limit the time anyone can spend in segregation, end solitary confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in isolation and create more humane and effective alternatives for inmates.

Retired Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany told CNS that the state’s bishops have worked on restorative justice issues for more than a decade. He said their concern always has been for the dignity of the inmates.

He also welcomed a settlement agreement reached in December in a lawsuit over incarceration practices in New York prisons. The agreement calls for a step-down unit to help inmates reintegrate into the general prison population, a substance abuse treatment program, a community re-entry program for people being released, incentivising good behaviour, ending the use of a restrictive diet as punishment, and disciplinary guidelines to end the use of arbitrary sanctions.

Cross country, the California Catholic Conference has pursued avenues to reform the state’s use of solitary confinement. From meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown to backing legislation placing limits on inmate isolation, the conference has staked out a consistent position that, a staff member told CNS, the bishops view as a human rights issue.

“They just felt like this is wrong. That we need to find different ways to address this. There’s different ways than keeping people in isolation for so long,” said Debbie McDermott, associate director for restorative justice at the California Catholic Conference.

Bishop Richard J. Garcia of Monterey, California, who chairs the conference’s Restorative Justice Committee, said he was troubled to see during visits to different isolation units that some inmates were held in cages. He said the men told him they feel lonely and neglected.

“It’s disconcerting that a lot of the people are left alone. Many threaten suicide. They can’t see their families for long, long times. So we have to reach out to them (state corrections officials) to say, ‘This isn’t the way to go. They’re not animals’,” the bishop said.

Over the years, the committee has been instrumental in gaining reforms in California solitary confinement practices. It played a major role in ending a two-month hunger strike in 2013 that involved nearly 10 per cent of California’s inmate population over solitary confinement policies, particularly at Pelican Bay State Prison.

“When the men were not eating at Pelican Bay, certainly we advocated for them and against what was happening to them there,” Bishop Garcia said.

“I think the SHU is improved, especially at Pelican Bay, from what I’ve been hearing,” he added.

Perez is pleased that reform campaigns are gaining attention. The reform efforts are not meant to prevent prison officials from doing their job, he explained, but to ensure that administrators remember that incarcerated people must make amends for their wrong-doing and not to be further punished in isolation for even minimal rules violations.

“We’re not saying you can’t not hold people accountable,” Perez said. “But you don’t have to treat them inhumanely.”

PEW study might do some good in MA

Alaska Draws Up Plans to Reduce Expanding Prison Population
Date:  01-20-2016

Recommendations include re-examining the bail bond system and revising drug laws

The Alaska Dispatch News reported that the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission has released recommendations on how to curb the state’s overly populated prison system. The Commission was aided byPew Charitable Trusts in drawing up the plans.

According to the Dispatch News, besides collecting data to measure the effectiveness of new laws and policies, and installing an oversight council, the recommendations include:

  • Expanding the use of citations in place of arrests for low-level, nonviolent offenses.
  • Deciding whether to release someone before trial based on the likelihood they’ll return for subsequent hearings or commit other crimes, instead of on their ability to pay a monetary bond. A review of court files showed the majority of cases required some type of monetary bond and “52 percent of sampled defendants were detained for the entirety of their pretrial period,” the report says.
  • Focusing resources on high-risk defendants — those who are “most likely to fail” or reoffend, the report says. More restrictive release conditions would be reserved for these offenders.
  • Limiting the use of prison space for low-level misdemeanor offenders by reclassifying some misdemeanors and violations, including changing disorderly conduct laws to allow for arrests but limit jail time to 24 hours, among other changes, the report says.
  • Revising drug penalties to focus the most severe punishments on serious drug crimes. Among the specific actions recommended, lawmakers are encouraged to reclassify the simple possession of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine as a misdemeanor.
  • Implementing a specialty parole option for long-term, geriatric inmates.
  • Incentivizing treatment for sex offenders with sentence reductions for completing treatment