Hope for the Criminal Justice System

Five formerly incarcerated people visited Clark to share their stories

Mike Cox, Contributing Writer

On March 28th Amnesty International and Students Against Mass Incarceration invited five formerly incarcerated persons to Clark University. These survivors of mass incarceration shared their experiences in prison, and the work that they are doing to create change.

Patricia Ewick, professor of sociology at Clark, offered opening remarks which poignantly framed the phenomenon of mass incarceration. She reminded us that the American penal system in its scope and harshness is an aberration both historically and in comparison to America’s democratic peers. We have been indoctrinated so deeply into this system of injustice that it has become normalized in contemporary society. She cautioned us that treating others in this way robs them of their humanity which in turn denies us a portion of our own humanity.

A number of the speakers talked about the ravages of solitary confinement. We heard stories that highlighted the arbitrariness with which incarcerated people can be placed in isolation for 23 hours a day. Douglas shared how he was placed in solitary confinement for giving a cup of water to a dying inmate in hospice care. Michael explained how he was placed in solitary confinement for merely receiving a hug from a friend. These are the stories that need to be told in order to expose the ways humanity is callously denied to incarcerated people.

Jessica, Edge, and Wolfpaw advocated for improved medical care, treatment for drug addiction, and care for women who are pregnant. Given the role of addiction in crime, one would assume that the state provides treatment to those it incarcerates, but that is not always the case. Detoxing from opioids is both dangerous and requires medical attention. Neither of these things are provided to people who are incarcerated even though they are considered imperative for people in the free world. We must do more than simply warehouse persons who are addicted. Addiction treatment, education, and job training for incarcerated people would ultimately better serve individuals inside and outside prison.

Thankfully, it was not all doom and gloom. Volunteers from EPOCA revealed that they are planning to create a transitional housing program for people released from prison. This will address one of the most basic needs of formerly incarcerated people: a safe place to live while they adjust to the demands and rigors of the free world.

Two members of Black and Pink, a prison abolition organization, shared their plan to create a speakers bureau so that more stories can be shared with the community and spotlight the travesties that mass incarceration creates. This is just one component to a larger plan to create a leadership training program for formerly incarcerated people who identify as LGBTQ+. Black and Pink believes that those who are closest to the problem are often the closest to the solution. By becoming a leader in the movement to dismantle the prison industrial complex, formerly incarcerated people are reclaiming their humanity while simultaneously working to create a more just world.

Organizations like EPOCA and Black and Pink have been taking their advocacy skills to the Statehouse in support of criminal justice reform. A criminal justice reform bill is on the cusp of being passed in Massachusetts. This bill will address many of the issues that were discussed by the panelists. To name just a few provisions of the bill: solitary confinement, opioid treatment, court-diversion programs, and waiving fees for parole and probation are addressed. The Senate and House of Representatives need to have an up or down vote on the reconciled bill and then it will head to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk to be signed into law. He has been silent about his position on this bill but activists are confident that even if he does not sign the bill into law there will be enough legislative votes to override his veto