150-plus Advocates testify about “broken” Mass criminal legal system
On Tuesday, Oct. 5, a legislative hearing held by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary highlighted the work activists across Massachusetts are doing to end racism and injustice in the criminal legal system.
One-hundred sixty people, representing more than 60 grassroots organizations, signed up to testify on at least one of 50-plus bills concerning “Correctional Services & Sentencing.”
Four bills garnered the most attention, focusing on issues covered in depth by DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism in previous reporting: the campaign for free phone calls behind bars, as well as those to end the sentence of life without parole (LWOP), revise conditions of parole supervision, and stop the building of new prisons and jails.
In a remote hearing that lasted eight-and-a-half hours, along with 15 state lawmakers and other officials, members of the public testified for three minutes each about why bills should or should not become law. Joint Senate and House committees require public hearings for bills that they consider.
Activists have noted that the testimonies of incarcerated individuals are necessary at such hearings. But at the beginning of the hearing, co-chair Sen. James Eldridge, joined by co-chair Rep. Michael Day, announced that the Department of Correction (DOC) would not allow incarcerated individuals to call in to testify. They can submit written testimony, he said, while some legislators will follow the lead of Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, who spent a few hours listening to lifers in person at Old Colony Correctional Center on Tuesday.
Attorney Bonnie Tennerielo said that in 2018, prisoners in Massachusetts, a “largely Black and brown and low income” population,” “spent $25,000,000 to keep in touch with loved ones.” The Prisoners’ Legal Services lawyer notes that “$7,000,000 of those monies were in “commissions” which were “really just kickbacks…the phone companies take this money from consumers and give it right back to the prisons and jails.” An Act relative to telephone service for inmates in all correctional and other penal institutions in the Commonwealth, filed by Rep. Chynah Tyler, demands “voice communication service free of charge” instead of what is an average of 14 cents per minute consumers are paying in Mass. prisons and jails.
This year, Connecticut made phone calls free for all incarcerated people and their families. In addition to that win, Bianca Tylec, executive director of Worth Rises, spoke about how she and her organization helped NYC become the first city to grant free phone calls in jails.
Shanita Jefferson of Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH) is a single mom with a six-year old daughter and a mother behind bars, and was one of the many parents who testified about the cost and difficulties of calling their loved ones. Jefferson said, “I remember going into labor in 2014 and unfortunately I didn’t have transportation. I was taking the bus to the hospital, having my phone in my hand, trying to add money to my account so [my mother] could call because I wanted her to know I was giving birth.”
Jasmine Borges of the Massachusetts Bail Fund “could only afford one call a week when she was incarcerated.” She said, “When I came home 12 years later, nothing could prepare me for the cold dark truth that I didn’t know my daughters.”
Rep. Liz Miranda, who along with Sen. Jay Livingstone filed An Act to reduce mass incarceration, spoke as both a survivor of her brother’s homicide and as someone who plans to testify that the man who murdered her brother deserves a shot at parole.
Parole is designed to give those behind bars an opportunity to serve the remainder of their sentence in the community. In Massachusetts, those serving second-degree life sentences are eligible to prove they deserve parole while those serving a first-degree life sentence (except for juveniles) receive a sentence of life with no parole eligibility.
Currently, 1059 people are serving life without parole in Massachusetts, “far more per capita than any other state in New England,” Miranda said. She pointed out the racial disparities—more than two-thirds of those serving life sentences are people of color—in Mass: 34% Black; 41% white; 20% Latinx—and said the bill will not guarantee release but will assure access to parole review and restorative justice programs. The state rep added, “The media and opponents of this bill use extraordinary examples to justify ill-informed opinions that are not rooted in facts or reality.”
In the first ever national survey of crime survivors, most respondents said they do not want long sentences, but instead prefer other kinds of justice. Of the 26 community members who testified on this bill, 19 supported it and seven opposed. Of the bill supporters, seven are survivors of violent crimes, including the murder of family members.
Among those who opposed the bill, Edwin Woo described the gruesome killing of loved ones. In Woo’s case, his father, Shui Keung Woo, was murdered inside Woo’s restaurant in 2011. The son elaborated on how difficult it was for his family to relive trauma at all the court proceedings they attended, imagining that parole after parole hearing would be equally difficult.
Alexandra Bailey, who leads the national Campaign to End Life Imprisonment for the Washington DC-based Sentencing Project, said she doesn’t come to this work from “the cheap seats.” She is both a survivor of domestic violence and has a family member sentenced to death for her rape. She advocates for his release because “Healing doesn’t happen with more retribution.” Bailey added, “This bill will be statistically, morally, and fiscally sound but it will also actually make our community safer.”
Reforming Parole Supervision
Attorney Patricia Garin, co-director of Northeastern University’s Prisoners’ Rights Clinic, summed up the need for An Act to reform parole supervision in the interest of justice, also filed by Rep. Miranda, with this comment: “Massachusetts Parole System is broken and the way they conduct supervision is broken.”
This bill rectifies some of what advocates testified were the most egregious problems with supervision, such as not being allowed to associate with others who have been behind bars, and revoking parole and returning someone to prison for what are called “technical violations,” i.e. infractions that are not new criminal allegations or convictions. Examples of these are having a drink, missing a parole appointment, or consistently not being able to pay the $80 monthly supervision fee, which for some on parole means not putting food on the table.
Per public records requests, technical violations accounted for 87% of parole revocations in 2017, 88% of revocations in 2018, and 89% in 2019. As we previously reported, “even during COVID 78% of people on parole who were returned to custody between March and June 2020 were sent back for technical violations, not for new crimes. Of those, 39% were eventually re-paroled, while 61% received revocations and lost their parole.”
Cynthia Goldberg, who is now the director and founder of the F8 Foundation, a reentry program for prisoners, was once incarcerated, on parole, and on probation. She testified that not being allowed to associate with other prisoners “feels like a constant electric shock.” Even if she finds it “therapeutic” to talk to other formerly incarcerated people or go with them to “movies, mini golf, theatre, hikes, to the beach, out for ice cream or to dinner at a restaurant,” she lives with “the constant fear of being reprimanded and losing freedom for the mere association.”
Susan Sered, a professor at Suffolk University who has published extensively on women in prison, stated she supported An Act establishing a jail and prison construction moratorium, filed by Rep. Chynah Tyler. She explained that there is no research at all to support the DOC’s claim of building a “trauma informed prison.”
As spelled out on a Fact Sheet created by FJAH for this bill, “Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of incarceration in the country, yet we spend more on jails and prisons than most other states. While the incarcerated population in MA decreased 21% from 2011-19, spending on incarceration has increased 25%.” The estimate for state spending is about $1.4 billion annually operating jails and prisons, and that does not include maintenance of buildings.
Elijah Patterson of Black and Pink Mass, a radical prisoner rights group, and Savina Martin of the Poor People’s Campaign and the National Union of the Homeless, both talked about the harm done by prisons. Patterson talked about the violence LGBTQ people experience behind bars, while Martin said that as a US Army veteran, coming out of prison was like “returning from war.”
“Investing in prisons,” Martin said, “causes more harm than good.” She told the Judiciary Committee, “We need treatment on demand.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.