“When COVID first started, I didn’t hear from him. You don’t know what it feels like to not know if your loved one is alive or dead.”
Justice advocates, prisoners, and families of those incarcerated are speaking out about bills to expand visitation rights, offer free phone calls, improve the Parole Board, and decarcerate prisons and houses of correction in Massachusetts.
“It’s incredibly important to pass these bills, particularly now because of COVID,” Elizabeth Matos executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS), said of legislation that, if passed, could change the lives of prisoners. The various bills offer different channels for families to stay connected at a time when coronavirus has severely crippled contact.
Activists are encouraging constituents to urge their representatives and senators to vote the bills out of committee before the end of June. Successful measures can then get heard by the full legislature before the legislative session comes to a close at the end of July.
Rep. Marjorie Decker filed H.2047, “An Act to Strengthen Inmate Visitation” (accompanied in the Senate by S.139, filed by Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz) said in an interview that the bill is a “justice issue.”
“My lens has always been around those who are the most vulnerable members of our community,” Decker noted.
William Powers, incarcerated at Old Colony Correctional Center, grew up in South Boston and has been behind bars for more than 12 years. He wrote in an email, “Right now, the way visits are, it’s destroying my relationship with my teenage son and daughters. I can’t see all my children at the same time. If they pass the bill, then my family from out of state can visit.”
Rep. Decker said her office is working with PLS to add video visitation to the bill as a stop-gap during the scourge of coronavirus. All prisons and houses of corrections cancelled in-person visits as of March 13 because of the outbreak of COVID-19, putting prisoners on lockdown. Recently, incarcerated men and women have had some recreation and yard time, but for more than two months, they spent 23 1/2 hours a day in their cells.
Emails I received from public information officers at houses of correction (HOC) indicate that policies vary from facility to facility. Some have been doing video visitation (Hampden HOC); some have not (Bristol County HOC); and some are open to video visitation in the future (Middlesex HOC). Asked if rumors to institute video visitation were true, DOC Deputy Director of Communications Jason Dobson wrote in an email, “The DOC continues to explore options to allow inmates and their loved ones to stay in touch while visits are necessarily limited due to COVID-19.”
Video visitation will not, however, be a substitute for in-person visitations, Decker said. In 2018, a law was passed that prohibited Mass correctional facilities from substituting in-person visits with video calls.
“We will be moving out of the pandemic and we need to have new laws ready to increase family visitation and connection,” Decker added. “We are talking about our families, our neighbors and our co-workers, and we cannot exclude them or erase them.”
Several bills aim to enhance family bonds by changing the telephone policy currently in place. Many behind bars and their loved ones want to see free communication as proposed in S.1372, “An Act Relative to Inmate Telephone calls,” filed by Sen. William Brownsberger. In an email response to questions for this article, the senator wrote, “It’s just wrong for the state to profit on the basic human need to connect. The burden falls on people who are among the least able to pay.”
According to PLS, “In 2018, Massachusetts prisons and jails combined made a reported $9,000,000 in commissions by charging prisoners’ families and loved ones outrageous prices to talk to their incarcerated loved ones.”
Forming a coalition called “Keep Families Together,” more than forty 40 organizations signed and sent a letter on March 20, 2020, to Gov. Charlie Baker, the state’s sheriffs, and Thomas Turco, secretary for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. Among their asks were two hours of free phone calls for those incarcerated during COVID. In practice, however, Matos said that access to phones currently depends on the facility, which she noted underscores the necessity of the proposed legislation.
“Families are struggling financially and worried about those who are medically vulnerable inside, terrified they might contract COVID and die,” Matos said. “They’re working to home school kids and try to be available for the phone call during the 30 minutes [prisoners] are out of lockdown. … This is not the time to charge people for incarceration.”
Two women, both of whom fear repercussions for their loved ones inside, spoke anonymously about the stress they feel during COVID and the importance of free phone calls.
One woman said that before COVID, she would visit MCI Norfolk where her husband is incarcerated, and he would help their son with homework during visits. She spent $45 a week on phone calls. Now, she said, although her husband receives two free calls a week, she spends $110 on calls, more than $400 a month. This is in order for her husband to do homework with her son.
“He wants to be present in his son’s life,” she said. She also emphasized that the free phone calls are not consistent. “First, it was 30 minutes; then it dropped to 20 minutes; and then to 15 minutes only on Saturday.”
Another woman whose husband is housed at Walpole told me: “You’ve got a bunch of men trying to get to three phones. The lines are long. The men have to use their free time to take showers, enjoy outdoor recreation, and talk on the phone, so when they are allowed so little time, it’s difficult.” She added, “My husband has uncontrolled diabetes and he’s been found unresponsive … so when I don’t hear from him in the morning, it’s terrifying. When COVID first started, I didn’t hear from him. You don’t know what it feels like to not know if your loved one is alive or dead.” She feels legislation may be the only way to assure dependable contact.
Because of her husband’s medical issues, the latter woman also acknowledged the importance of H.4652, “An Act regarding Decarceration and COVID-19,” filed by Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa. She created audio testimonies from 12 men at Walpole, testimonials read over the phone by her husband on calls. She submitted them to the Judiciary Committee, which will decide whether or not to advance the bill by June 30.
In addition to advocating for the release of classes of prisoners, such as the elderly and those medically vulnerable to COVID-19, the bill stresses contact: “All incarcerated individuals shall be allowed daily access to telephone calls, emails and recreation time.”
Another bill that would aid the connection of prisoners to loved ones is “An Act Relative to Parole,” H.4607, sponsored by the Judiciary Committee, which increases Parole Board membership from seven to nine members.
As many have pointed out, the current average time lapse from a lifer parole hearing to the date of decision is approximately eight to 10 months—even though it should be only one to two months. That means families are kept apart while prisoners wait for a positive parole decision to be issued. And if parole to home depends on the person spending time in lower security first, the wait to rejoin one’s family after a positive vote can easily be for more than 18 months.
Patricia Garin, an experienced parole attorney, said, “Because this bill increases the Parole Board membership from seven to nine members, it should expedite the issuing of decisions.”
The bill also requires that “At least three members of the Parole Board have at least five years of experience in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, social work, or the treatment of substance use disorder and that one of those members be a licensed mental health professional.”
William Powers, who has not yet gone up for parole, said in an email: “Law enforcement has no business on the board. They don’t understand rehabilitation. … They have no place on a board that is supposed to evaluate rehabilitation.”
“Parole Boards predict future behavior,” Garin said. “With only one psychologist and no social workers, our current Parole Board does not have the education and experience necessary to do its job.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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.