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Editorial: Fixing unfair prison practices

  • Massachusetts State House in Boston, MA Paul Brady

Published: 11/7/2019 11:48:34 AM
Modified: 11/7/2019 11:48:24 AM

There’s a bill moving through the State House now that addresses real horrors within our correctional system. In a recent story in our sister paper, the Gazette, Nia Reid-Patterson explained through tears that her 8-year-old son no longer wants to visit his father in jail due to their treatment by guards during visitations.

For eight years, she has been “disrespected, humiliated and treated as if (she) was a criminal,” Reid-Patterson told state lawmakers at a recent briefing for bill S.1379/H.2047. At one point, in an instance that particularly disturbed her son, she was forced to take her shirt almost all the way off as part of the screening, then was banned from visitation for 30 days when she questioned why.

“We’re trying to make our families strong and our connection strong, but they keep breaking it down,” Reid-Patterson told lawmakers at the briefing.

She also described how her husband was forced to take his sister off of a list of pre-approved visitors so that his brother could visit. The number of unique people who can visit an inmate is currently limited.

This treatment of people visiting their relatives in jail or prison is unacceptable and is an affront to a vulnerable population. Last year, a comprehensive criminal justice bill was supposed to mandate more humane treatment of inmates.

But while the bill focused on some productive topics, including bail reform, expungement and increased use of diversionary programs, harsher visitation provisions were also enacted by the state’s Department of Corrections.

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a cosponsor of the prison reform bill, told reporter Noor Adatia that the department enacted those visitation changes and is not fully complying with the reform bill. “It feels wrong when you have the Legislature asking a body to do one thing, and then that group does something different,” she said.

The new bill would disallow limiting unique individuals who can visit an inmate, loosen clothing restrictions, allow for reasonable touch among inmates and visitors and facilitate more visits to inmates.

It is at the top of the list of legislative priorities for advocacy organization Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, which has assembled a fact sheet of the benefits of the bill. They report that inmates who receive visits have fewer instances of misconduct; visitations help mitigate the risk for children with incarcerated parents of negative social outcomes and help the prisoners themselves when they re-enter society; and visitations are crucial to the well-being of prisoners, their families and the people who work in correctional facilities.

At the recent briefing, Prisoners’ Legal Services representative Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney, called the current policies “nonsensical” and “contrary to the idea of rehabilitation and re-entry.”

Our correctional system is based on the idea of rehabilitation and re-entry into society. As such, we need to enact policies that support individuals and are shown to improve their lives and make them less likely to get incarcerated again. Policies that punish inmates’ families add another layer of burden in an already difficult situation for people.

Our longstanding criminal justice policies that dehumanize people who find themselves incarcerated haven’t done us any favors. We lock up more people now than ever. While Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rate of any state in the country, the state still leads much of the world per capita, including the countries of India, Japan, Canada, and more than half of Europe, according to advocacy organization Vera Institute of Justice.

It is a fact that bears repeating that the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prison population while only having 5 percent of the world’s population.

Legislators should support bill S.1379/H.2047. As Sabadosa pointed out, those who are incarcerated are lawmakers’ constituents, too.

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