by Claire Gosselin
In Massachusetts and across the nation, people are challenging the criminal legal system: Why, they ask, are so many people incarcerated in the US? Does incarceration really provide justice, solve crimes, or improve communities? On the contrary, there’s ample evidence that incarceration is unjust and harmful to communities.
While accounting for only 5% of the world’s population, the US has 25% of the world’s incarcerated. Moreover, incarceration is also disproportionate within the US. In Massachusetts, as well as elsewhere, incarceration harms predominantly Black, Brown, Indigenous and low income populations. The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (The Council) and their local affiliate, Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH), believe there are better solutions than criminalization and incarceration to social and economic harms within communities. Moreover, they are actively involved in promoting some achievable alternatives to current carceral practices, working within their communities to really make a difference. They have partnered with legislators to introduce An Act establishing a jail and prison construction moratorium in the State House and Senate. Passing this legislation would push a “pause button” for Massachusetts to shift from investing over 1 billion each year in incarceration to reinvestment in communities. This is the essence of reimagining communities.
Mallory Hanora, Executive Director of FJAH, explained that “Reimagining communities was developed by directly affected women after years of participatory research, including nationwide town halls and listening tours. Through reimagining communities, we are creating what different looks like. The cost of incarcerating one woman inside of Framingham is over $160,000 a year. We must do so much more and better for women with those kinds of resources.” It is a hopeful process, bringing new possibilities to communities where hope has often been hard to sustain.
Throughout the most incarcerated neighborhoods in Massachusetts, there are “million dollar blocks” where well over a million dollars a year are spent on incarcerating just the residents from that street. The Council and FJAH are pushing back on the fact that while so much is spent on incarceration there is no meaningful investment in what the people living on those blocks actually need to thrive. According to Mallory “ When we talk about shifting resources, we’re talking about all the money spent on locking people in jail and prison being reallocated toward housing, healing, treatment, healthy food access, small businesses, community spaces and programming led by the people who live there, for education and more.” Working with the communities to address basic human needs creates better conditions for safe and thriving neighborhoods than locking up men and women struggling to survive in a racist society.
The Council and FJAH have already begun to implement some models of reimagined communities on a small scale, including: setting up a mobile office to provide some services; a guaranteed income supplement of $500 per month for 20 formerly and incarcerated women; a hydroponic farm to grow vegetables on Roxbury’s Humboldt Ave, with a farmers market to begin this year; mutual aid; cooperative business grants; participatory defense and engaging community in developing a people’s budget. All these models are being funded from The Council’s operating budget at this time.
Another model for reimagining communities comes from the history of Indigenous peoples. In the recent virtual forum on the prison moratorium legislation, Mahtowin Munroe of United American Indians of New England (UAINE) shared her knowledge of the restorative justice practices of indigenous peoples before the English colonized this land. Regarding communities at risk, she noted: “Things don’t have to be this way…Native people for millennia have had community laws and ways of dealing with the people who did not respect the community laws.” There was no such thing as a jail or prison in Massachusetts before the English colonists arrived, imposing their own punitive customs on the native people. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Indigenous people were the first to be held in the jails created by the English. Social control by incarceration contrasted sharply with traditional native peoples’ justice practices, which were more consistent with what we call restorative justice, with its underlying principles emphasizing that people are in community with each other, and are responsible for each other.
In the past several years, FJAH and The Council have had legislative victories: ending the shackling of incarcerated women in childbirth (2014), and Primary Caretakers legislation which allows parents who have been convicted to file a motion to the court for an alternative community-based sentence so they do not have to endure the trauma of incarceration and family separation. Nevertheless, the Council questions the effectiveness of introducing piecemeal changes in practices each legislative session and views their achievements as just a start on reforms that need to be more fully implemented along with other prison reform legislation passed in recent years.
“We have been fighting to stop the building of a new women’s prison for 10 years!” These are the words of Andrea James of The Council, who with FJAH was able to stop, on procedural grounds, two earlier attempts to build a women’s prison. Now, however, Governor Baker has designated $50 million for such a building project through a bond bill, without need for legislative approval. The HDR Architecture firm has been chosen to proceed with the project, with $250,000 assigned to the Ripples group to produce a report and proposal.
An Act establishing a jail and prison construction moratorium calls for a 5 year pause on all prison and jail construction to do the work of reimagining communities, applying alternatives that include accountability for wrongdoing while keeping families together. The Council, FJAH and allies advocate for clemency for women who are older than 50, women with illnesses and serious health conditions, women who have served longer than 10 years, and women who are survivors of violence. Clemency is an urgent matter of racial and gender justice and a key to releasing women from Framingham. They are organizing to demand exit plans for every woman insideFramingham to be released and come back to the community with resources so her needs can be met.
Andrea James believes that Massachusetts is uniquely poised to be a leader in moving away from incarceration to more effective, community based solutions that shift from separating and harming families to restorative healing and thriving, safe communities. The Council and FJAH will continue this fight for as long as it takes, and urge us to participate in any way we can to pass the legislation noted above, S.2030 in the Senate and H.1905 in the House. S.2030 is currently in the Senate Ways & Means and must get to the Senate floor for a vote before the end of the session on July 31. H.1905 is in the Joint Committee on the Judiciary and needs to be voted favorably out of committee by April 15 in order to proceed to a vote in the House before the close of the session. Call and email Senate President Karen Spilka and Speaker of the House Ronald Mariano to urge them to move the bills to a vote. Consider calling your own representative and senator to urge passage. Suggested scripts for these calls and other ways to do community outreach, by phone or with in person standouts, are ongoing through the weekends April 2 – 9. Follow this link to fill out the volunteer form. We can and must join in support of reimagining communities that have been unjustly marginalized!