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Position Paper

 

 

 

 

Dear Colleagues:

As those who followed the 4 year long Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition (SHaRC) effort to stop construction of the Chicopee women's jail are aware, irrefutable, fact-based arguments in opposition to further jail construction [1] went unheeded by Governor Romney.  

During the time leading up to construction, and since then, it has come to our attention that Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe has been the source of 'information' based on faulty logic, with which he appears to have persuaded elected officials and representatives of organizations seeking reform. Merely reforming the criminal justice system will only continue to support a government institution which ruins the lives of the people it purports to protect, in this case, the women, mothers and children who will be irreparably damaged by the states 'justice' system. In the following position paper we will refute, with fact, logic and common sense, the faulty claims of Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe, and others.

For Justice and Peace,

SHaRC

WHY WOMEN ARE NOT BEST SERVED BY INCARCERATION

A Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition Position Paper Regarding Overcrowding, Proximity to Family and Support, a Place of Their Own

March 8th, 2006

“Prison Issues are important for feminists, both because individual women are being oppressed by prison and, in a wider context, because the judicial/prison system exists to support the larger power structure that oppresses us all." [2]

There are 3 main arguments put forth to support the construction of women-specific jails (with the most recent scenario being in relation to the Chicopee women’s jail): 

  1. Issues of overcrowding;

  2. Proximity to family and support; and

  3. A need to provide women with “a place of their own” to alleviate the deplorable conditions they experience inside—which appears, given the solution offered, to refer only to harassment of women prisoners by male prisoners.

OVERCROWDING

MYTH:  "The state women's facilities are so overcrowded and the women so far from home that many women would prefer new construction to be closer to their kids and out of a medium security state prison." 

FACT:  Simply put, the best way to address overcrowding is to depopulate the jails, and the best way to address women being incarcerated too far from home is not to incarcerate us in the first place.

The most effective management response to prison overcrowding is to stop sending women to jail, who could and should remain in our communities.  This is commonly referred to as “alternatives to incarceration”. According to Assistant Superintendent of the Hampden County Correctional Center (HCCC), Kate DeCou (and others) [3],  49.9% of the women sentenced at HCCC are appropriate for an intermediate sentence (or, an “alternative”, in-community sentence). For example, it is not unusual for there to be as many as 88 women sentenced at HCCC. Take away 49.9% and that leaves 44 women using bed space. We suddenly are not overcrowded anymore.

Additionally, as assessments of the War on Drugs point to failure [4], release to in-community sentences  with drug treatment options, of low level, non-violent offenders—as many as 70% of all federal, state and local prisoners, male and female, will further reduce overcrowding. This would immediately free space in which to create gender safety for all and provide room for programs for women.

PROXIMITY TO FAMILY AND SUPPORT

The Department of Corrections female offender review panel is recommending that women be returned to the counties to be closer to kids, attorneys and courts.

Building a local jail will not solve problems for women and children relating to infrequent visits. For example, it is said that the proposed Chicopee women's jail will allow women to have visits with their children and family members, due to its proximity to Springfield. This will only be true for families who have sufficient funds and access to transportation, since women incarcerated will be from all 4 counties in Western Mass: Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire. Transportation from Franklin and Berkshire Counties will be no easier than currently for families of women incarcerated in either Ludlow or Framingham.  Women may lose their children to the Department of Social Services (DSS) due to incarceration, and DSS isn't going to transport children to Chicopee any more often than they already do to Ludlow or Framingham. We need to paint the whole picture.

No matter how good or near family and support are, this will ultimately do little to alleviate the permanent harms caused by incarceration. Once incarcerated, women, and men, face obstacles to a successful return to society, starting with a lack of rehabilitative programs. And once they are out they are barred from assistance for housing, education, and employment, all of which are essential in getting up on ones feet.  For many, Post Incarceration Syndrome is a debilitating reality. [5] Children experience trauma as well and the chance that they will enter the justice system is more than six times higher than families of non-incarcerated parents. [6]

A PLACE OF THEIR OWN

“...to serve the women's population better”

It wasn't so long ago, less than 2 years in fact, that the Hampden County Sheriff's department was claiming overcrowded conditions as the primary reason for the proposed new women's jail in Chicopee. This is no longer the Sheriff's claim. In a newspaper article printed in the Springfield Republican, on April 23, 2005, Sheriff Michael Ashe stated, "It's not an issue of numbers. It's about men outnumbering women inmates 9 to 1. It's not a situation we should settle for." He adds, "Its not good common sense. We are not building a new regional facility as a result of overcrowding but to serve the women's population better."

Well Sheriff Ashe, we women will be best served by remaining in our communities, and having what we need (and have a human right to.) We need affordable housing, food, job opportunities, childcare, quality education for our children (to prevent them from winding up in the criminal justice system) and health care, including non-punitive, community-based drug treatment opportunities.

The majority of offenses for which women are charged are crimes of poverty and/or self-defense from impending domestic violence, often from a male partner. Women mainly suffer from issues of drug addiction and trauma (societal—including racism, sexism, classism, homophobia/trans-phobia, able-ism, etc, as well as personal traumatic experiences from childhood). If we truly wish to build healthy communities, we will demand investments to provide people with basic human needs, rather than promoting punishment. Yes, we agree, we must be close to our children in order to raise healthy families, therefore, leave us in our communities.

"Shouldn't there be separate facilities for men and women?"

SHaRC finds the corrections community's current argument for separation of men and women by building more jails and prisons to be disingenuous and self serving. The reality is that women have been in the men's jails for decades. Women are in all the men's jails. Women have been in the Ludlow jail for a decade. Now the sheriff says the women need to have their own “independent, freestanding, autonomous” facility because of deplorable conditions.

SHaRC would like to know, since the Hampden County Sheriff's Department allowed for the abuse of women for a decade at the Ludlow jail; why was nothing done during that time to bring it to a halt? On behalf of all the women who passed through the Ludlow jail during the past 10 years and those  who are currently confined, we condemn the Hampden County Sheriff's department for not taking action and for exploiting the publics preference for fairness toward women. They have callously used the deplorable conditions to justify their insupportable case for the Chicopee women's jail.

Actions that should have been and must still been taken are as follows: 

  • Provide "intermediate sanctions" as per Kate De Cou et al, 1996 (see above); fund and implement the 1994 Truth In Sentencing Law;

  • Waive excessive bails, which keep pre-trial detainees behind bars for periods that rival sentences for convicted prisoners, and are yet another attack on the poor;

  • Guarantee effective community-based drug treatment outside jails and prisons for people who want help with addiction; and

  • Strengthen community infrastructure in low-income areas: affordable housing, family wage jobs, quality childcare, improved schools, parks, public transportation, access to food and health care etc.

There would be no need for new jails or prisons now if these actions had been taken when the conditions first came to light. The Chicopee women's jail would be a community center and park space, for example, not a building filled with cages for humans.

The Sheriffs department, the county and the state are accountable to our community for the abuse women suffer at the hands of staff and male prisoners. They allowed this abuse, when they could quite easily have stopped it, and only now, under the guise of selling the public on the merits of a new jail, have they begun to express concern.

The real crime is the one perpetrated by the county and state for allowing women to suffer  under these deplorable conditions, while promoting the idea that fairness, in the world of Sheriff Ashe, means locking them up in newer, "independent, freestanding, autonomous" cages. 

Further, the absence of male prisoners, such as at MCI Framingham, does not ensure women’s freedom from rape and abuse. Rape and abuse at MCI Framingham has been well documented for many years. Indeed, in 1999, Amnesty International reported that MCI-Framingham was “plagues by increasing levels of inappropriate sexual behavior by guards." [7] 

THE HARMS OF THE STATUS QUO

How we allow them, how we prevent them

There is collective responsibility within communities to speak out against systems and institutions that are treating some people (poor people and people of color) with a different set of rules and guidelines than is standard policy for others (economically privileged people and white people). The war on drugs has created laws which specifically target poor people and people of color in a majority of cases; for example laws that mandate increased sentences for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. We cannot escape this obvious truth. 

By taking us away from our communities and dehumanizing us, the system breeds abuse and produces violence; locking us away is a violent use of power. Violence has a tendency to 'trickle down'. If members of the corrections "community" are serious about ending violence toward prisoners, male or female, they would not encourage or allow guards and other prisoners to engage in this violence. 

There is something wrong when a country, which is supposed to stand for freedom, has the highest incarceration rate in the world. There was a time when public policies supported keeping people out of jails and prisons by funding education and opportunity. Now resources are instead misdirected toward jails and prisons. We need a future without any new jails and prisons. We already have more than enough. 

If we’re serious about addressing issues of poverty and putting an end to violations of human rights, we will implement recommendations with proven solutions such as increased availability of family wage jobs, equal access to quality education, and affordable housing for all. What's at issue here is the lack of political will to effectively address social problems and the willingness to exploit the publics insecurity and fear of criminally defined activity. Politicians can and do win office on ‘tough on crime’ platforms. The appeal of using fear to advance a political agenda is seductive; ultimately the long-term effect is harmful to the broader community.

In addition, people leave prison more traumatized than when they entered. Clearly, if rehabilitation were the goal, and a strong argument can be made that current policy does not focus on rehabilitation, imprisonment is not only unhelpful, but also actually harmful. [8]

And finally, once government builds a new jail or prison, they don't usually shut the old one down. It has been reported in a Western Massachusetts newspaper that the old men's jail in Greenfield, where a new jail is under construction, is going to be refurbished and used to jail women in Franklin County. The rationale for funding the Greenfield jail construction project was due to the faulty lock and key system. In case of a fire, many of the prisoners would likely perish. This was an opportunity to not only reduce the number of prison beds and depopulate the jail, but also to turn the tide on the use of incarceration as the solution to all of our social problems.

Let’s not waste money to build new jails when we already know how to solve the problems that put people into jail or prison. Redirect the funds to provide for basic needs, which are, after all, human rights.

A cage is a cage is a cage.  SHaRC does not support the caging of members of our communities as a solution to social problems of poverty and racism. We don't want nicer, cleaner cages. We want a better society, with safe neighborhoods and more forgiving communities.

SO WHAT DOES SHaRC PROPOSE INSTEAD?

TO BEGIN WITH, SHaRC PROPOSES:

  1. First and immediately we would release all low-level non-violent offenders, who make up between 50% and 70% of the jail/prison population. Using a conservative estimate of 50%, in the case of the Ludlow jail alone, that would mean releasing 935 men and 97 women from Ludlow jail. This would immediately create physical space in which to create gender safety for all.  Apply this to all county and state lock ups and we will not need to build any more jails or prisons at all.

  2. Release all wrongfully-convicted prisoners.

  3. Release any person who is incarcerated due to falsified evidence or testimony.

  4. Release any prisoner who is over 50, served 25 years or is capable of returning to the community without re-offending.

WE DEMAND:

QUALITY SCHOOLS—not jails.

HOUSING—not jails.

JOBS—not jails.

HEALTH CARE—not jails.

MONEY FOR DRUG TREATMENT—not jails.

A LIVING WAGE—not jails.

AFFORDABLE HIGHER EDUCATION—not jails.

AN END TO CORI—not jails!

Furthermore, we demand that 70% of the Department and Houses of Corrections budgets be reinvested in the communities most affected by the failed “War on Drugs” and incarceration.  These funds will be used specifically to hire folks returning to the community from jail/prison and to ex-offenders struggling to find employment. Employment opportunities could include: parks and recreation, clean-up and development; school refurbishment; as well as other community development needs as identified by each community itself. These same communities need money for schools and supplies, affordable housing and health care, job opportunities with a living wage, and drug treatment on demand. We also propose and end to the CORI, which has been more harmful than good. We need to talk about real solutions to help re-focus our thinking from the trap of proposing the building of more jails and prisons as a solution to overcrowding, a lack of 'fairness" for women, and for keeping families closer together. We must create truly safe and viable living conditions for all women and men within our communities.

REPLACE PRISONS WITH JUSTICE!

Simply put, the best way to address overcrowding is to depopulate the jails, replace them with social and economic justice. The best way to address incarceration far from home is to not incarcerate women in the first place. The best way to ensure women do not suffer deplorable conditions like rape, torture and abuse on the inside is to fund basic human needs in the community.

In every case the solution is to de-fund the jails and prisons, replace them with justice, and fund the kind of support needed for all of us to attain independent, freestanding, autonomous lives!

Footnotes:

  1. "Chicopee Women's Jail Fact Booklet," 2nd Edition, SHaRC, Harvard Progressive Advocates Group: www.stopchicopeejail.org/download/SHaRCStopJailBookletNEW.pdf

  2. "Sisters Inside: Prisons and Social Control," a collective piece by staff, from Kinesis, published by the Vancouver Commission on the Status of Women, June 1987.

  3. "Fundamental Fairness: Providing Intermediate Sanctions for Women" by Susan Curran, Kate De Cou, et. al, 1999: http://www.masslaw.com/fundfair.htm

    “Now is the optimum time to create new alliances and to expand supports to help more women involved with the criminal justice system serve their sentences in the community where they can work on their own rehabilitation without jeopardizing their family connections.”

  4. “What's wrong with the War on Drugs”: http://www.drugpolicy.org/drugwar/; “The Successes and Failures of George Bush's War on Drugs,” by Dan Check:

    http://www.tfy.drugsense.org/tfy/bushwar.htm; and

    http://www.efficacy-online.org/index.html

  5. Post Incarceration Syndrome and Relapse by Terence T. Gorski, 2000:

    http://www.massdecarcerate.org/PICS.html

  6. Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners, a project of the Child Welfare League of America

  7. "A World Apart: Women, Prison and Life Behind Bars" by Christina Rathbone, 2005

  8. "Post Incarceration Syndrome and Relapse by Terence T. Gorski, 2000: http://www.massdecarcerate.org/PICS.html

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     Last Updated on Wednesday July 25, 2007.