Activists rally to stop Massachusetts prison expansion

Martin Desmarais | 4/30/2014, 10:21 a.m.
Hundreds of prison reform activists gathered on Boston Common on Saturday to call on state lawmakers to enact criminal justice legislation that spends less money on building prisons and provides more support services including education and job training. The event was part of the ongoing Jobs Not Jails campaign. Banner Photo


Banner Photo

The Jobs not Jails coalition held a rally on Boston Common on Saturday that was supported by about 80 organizations from across the state. Hundreds gathered to call on state legislators for criminal justice reform.

Hundreds of prison reform activists gathered on Boston Common on Saturday afternoon to show state lawmakers that prison policy must be changed and to decry the estimates from Gov. Deval Patrick’s office that the state will spend $2 billion by 2020 to build 10,000 new prison units, as well as $150 million each year to fill them.

Organized by the Jobs Not Jails coalition the event, dubbed “Rally to End Mass Incarceration and Fund Job Creation,” also gave activists a stage to express outrage that Massachusetts has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and more than 60 percent of prisoners released from the jails in the state recidivate within three years.

Those rallying and organizations such as Jobs Not Jails coalition organizer Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, Families for Justice and Healing and Boston Workers’ Alliance, joined an estimated 80 other groups from across the state on Boston Common. Other groups varied from nonprofits that support the formerly incarcerated to family service providers to religious organizations.

“This rally is just the beginning of everything we are working for,” EPOCA organizer and event emcee Cassandra Bensahih told the gathered crowd to kick of the event. “Thank you for standing together today for change.”

Jobs Not Jails is pushing for a reduction in prison spending and funneling the resulting savings into jobs and employment programs that can help the formerly incarcerated during re-entry into the working world and help reduce recidivism rates in the state. Activists point out that other states — including New York, Washington and Texas — have overhauled their criminal justice systems and thus reduced prison populations and closed prisons.

Sunni Ali of the Boston Workers Alliance belabored this point when he spoke to the rally.

“This is a terrible condition that is going on because mass incarceration has defined what is going on in our state today,” Ali said. “We have mass incarceration of people that are being unjustly accused of things and given time for non-violent crimes that is just the same as the time given for armed robbery — 10 to 15 years.

“The state has money to build prisons, so why don’t they have money to build jobs, to make jobs not jails. We need education, we need job training and we need help in the industry for employment,” he added.

The rallying point for activists on Saturday include many of the following prison reforms: ending mandatory minimum drug sentences; diversion of low-level drug offenders to treatment even before trial; eliminating counterproductive “collateral sanctions” such as an automatic driver’s license suspension for drug offenses, and high fees for probation, parole, court costs and telephone charges; reforming the systems of parole and probation; bail reform; restoring educational programs including vocational education as well as college-level courses in prisons and jails.

“Every day more than 5,000 women and men are jailed pre-trail, that is they have not been convicted of anything — 5,000 here in the state of Massachusetts. Most are held for months only because they do not have the money for bail, often as little as $500,” said Andrea James, a lead organizer for the Roxbury-based Families for Justice and Healing. “We are advocating for a cost-effective criminal justice system that ensures the human rights of residents as well as public safety. We are working to create alternatives, such as pre-trail services and community-based wellness alternatives, instead of building new jails. We are proposing pre-trail services that begin at the initial arrest when tax dollars can be most effectively spent and intervention is most effective.”