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Meet Decarcerate Western Mass, a new network of organizers fighting for abolition during COVID-19

By Jack Chelgren

As uprisings continue around the world following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and many other Black and Brown people by law enforcement, there’s been a massive surge of support for defunding and dismantling the police. Black Lives Matter has brought abolitionist politics into the mainstream. But at the same time that calls to abolish the police have gone viral, COVID-19 has made it more urgent than ever to end not just policing, but incarceration as well.

On March 21, two days before Governor Baker issued the emergency order that shut down nonessential businesses, the first prisoner in Massachusetts tested positive for the virus. About three months later, more than 651 prisoners and 365 jail and prison staff have tested positive, and nine prisoners have died. Nationwide, more than 652 incarcerated people and 52 staff have died. These counts are expected to continue to climb.

While the pandemic is devastating communities everywhere, incarcerated people are particularly vulnerable. They are statistically more likely than the general public to have underlying health conditions that could be complicated by the virus, and they frequently receive substandard medical care. This was the case even before the pandemic put an enormous strain on the correctional healthcare system.

Experts warn that effective social distancing is generally impossible in jails and prisons, making them a dangerous “petri dish” for the virus. As The Shoestring reported back in March, and as many other sources have concurred, the only sensible and effective way to prevent the spread of the virus behind bars is to drastically reduce the number of people in jails and prisons. If prisoners are not released in large numbers, many prisoners and staff will die, and many more will contribute to the spread of the virus to communities well beyond the penal system.

All told, COVID-19 has made decarceration, or reducing the number of people in prisons and jails, an even more acute ethical imperative than it already was. Of course, this is nothing that abolitionist organizers haven’t been saying for decades, and new groups and coalitions continue to rise to meet the challenges of this evolving struggle.

Decarcerate Western Mass

One of the latest arrivals to abolitionist organizing in this region is Decarcerate Western Mass, a network that formed in early March to address the crisis of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. The group took shape during a campaign where organizers pressured District Attorney David Sullivan to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Hampshire and Franklin Counties to curb the spread of the virus. Since then, they’ve conducted a variety of actions aimed at supporting incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated people and their loved ones, pushing for releases, and rallying communities to join the fight against incarceration.

Participants describe DWM as intentionally flexible, more like a coalition of already-existing organizations than an entirely new entity. “I think of DWM as an information hub and a conduit of information/resources,” said Aya Mares, who came to the network via the Pioneer Valley Workers Center. “If we could gather in a place, it would probably look like a community center/radical library where people are assembling parole packets, studying abolitionist resources, writing letters, endlessly buzzing offices of officials, letting them know our swarm won’t stop anytime soon.”

The most public action DWM has undertaken to date was a car rally and phone zap targeting the Hampden County Correctional Center, a jail in Ludlow where an outbreak of COVID-19 appeared in May. Sheriff Nick Cocchi, who oversees the facility, did not test the entire population of the jail until more than eight prisoners were known to have the virus. Prior to that, despite reports that anywhere from 25 to 80% of infected people may be asymptomatic, and strong evidence that jails and prisons are hotspots for infection, the facility only tested people who showed symptoms.

Sheriff Cocchi has been outspoken about his opposition to releasing prisoners and his view that incarceration can provide meaningful support and rehabilitation. In late March, he gave a speech alongside Hampden County DA Anthony Gulluni, vehemently rejecting calls by the ACLU and other advocates to release as many people as possible from jails to flatten the curve of infections. Citing “the evil temptations that exist in our society,” Cocchi argued that prisoners are safer in jail than they would be if they were released. Jails, he said, provide healthcare and other services that are currently unavailable elsewhere. Additionally, Cocchi claimed to have “a very strong prevention plan,” and stated that his staff were “prepared with protocols to handle the situation without having it spread amongst our population.”

What these “protocols” and his “prevention plan” entailed remains somewhat unclear. But according to reports from inside, prisoners who showed symptoms were placed in solitary confinement for up to two weeks. (Spokespeople for the jail insist the facility does not employ solitary confinement and refer to their procedures as isolation.) Leaked paperwork and a letter signed by multiple prisoners also suggest that Sheriff Cocchi was aware of possible cases in the jail as early as sometime in April, but failed to reassure people or keep them safe.

On May 26, the Sheriff imposed a medical lockdown to contain the outbreak. During this time, according to DWM, prisoners received inadequate medical attention, particularly for non-COVID health concerns, and were unable to contact loved ones. They had limited access to phone and video calls, which reportedly, in some cases, were offered only on the basis of so-called “good behavior.” One person said staff told his housing unit, “Whoever has the cleanest room gets a video call.” For several weeks, people were served only cold sandwiches for lunch and dinner. Some went six days without being able to shower.

DWM coordinated several actions to publicize and bring an end to the harsh conditions of the lockdown. On Friday, June 5, protesters gathered at the jail for a car rally, driving around the facility with signs. Local news stations estimate more than 60 cars participated. That same day, and continuing into the following week, dozens of people called the jail and the Sheriff’s office to demand he end the lockdown, adopt humane social distancing procedures instead of isolation, and guarantee access to soap, showers, masks, hot food, and phone calls.

These actions were principally organized by Aime Matos, a Springfield resident and member of DWM whose partner was incarcerated at the Ludlow jail until the end of June. She credits the rally and the phone zap with getting a hold of Sheriff Cocchi and eventually arranging a meeting with him to discuss the jail’s response to the pandemic. She also noted that, soon after the rally, her partner was able to get a video call.

“The abuse of authority is never-ending”

Matos and her partner’s ongoing “legal nightmare,” as she put it, epitomizes the complex tangle of exploitation, negligence, and corruption linking policing and incarceration. Her partner has Crohn’s Disease and several other medical conditions for which he needs ongoing medical support. But while incarcerated during the pandemic, he has received highly inconsistent care. At one point, he got cellulitis—which, if untreated, can lead to severe complications—but was afraid to speak up, believing he would be put in isolation until he tested negative for COVID-19. Instead of getting care, he ended up self-medicating with Tylenol. He is supposed to receive infusions every three months for Crohn’s Disease, but recently had to go four months without receiving one. Matos says her partner has received only two video calls since March 16.

Prior to his recent imprisonment, Matos’s partner experienced several violent and humiliating encounters with police, including being forced to remove his prosthetics without good cause during an arrest.

“The abuse of authority is never-ending,” said Matos, referring to several MassLive articles about corruption in the Springfield Police Department. “Instead of doing their job, [the police] go above and beyond to abuse the authority that they’re given by the government. If they’re trying to fight crime, they should maybe begin by fighting crime within, instead of slapping it on the wrist.”

The day we spoke, Matos had been to the Hampden County Jail to post bail for her partner, who was scheduled to be released a few days later. But in a last-minute twist, he almost hadn’t been released due to a June 22 opinion from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court called Commonwealth v. Lougee.

Typically around two-thirds of the people in Massachusetts’ jails haven’t been convicted of anything, but are being held while they await trial. State law limits how long someone can be jailed in this way. But Commonwealth v. Lougee determined that for anyone held pretrial because a court has deemed them “dangerous,” none of the time that’s passed since March 13—when many of these cases were put on hold—counts toward the limit. These people could already be in jail for up to 180 days (or six months) before their trial. Now, pandemic notwithstanding, that time can go on much longer.

Since Matos’s partner was serving one of these so-called “dangerousness hearings,” Commonwealth v. Lougee might have meant he’d be incarcerated for several more months at least, all before his case was even heard by a court. Fortunately, his attorney persuaded the judge to override the ruling, so his release was not affected.

Still, Matos says she’s committed to challenging Commonwealth v. Lougee going forward. “Imagine if you were incarcerated,” she said, “and someone told you basically the time you’ve been serving us isn’t counting.”

Massachusetts’s lethally slow response

Commonwealth v. Lougee is the latest in a long line of problems with Massachusetts jails and prisons that organizers are trying to address. Lois Ahrens, founding director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, published a guest column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette in late March called “The coronavirus: A jail or prison sentence should not be a death sentence,” which lays out a number of actions the state could take to protect prisoners.

In addition to the basic demand of free soap, hygiene products, and medical care, Ahrens urged that probation and parole fees be waived, and the parole process expedited. She also called for the release of pregnant women, people who are incarcerated because they can’t afford bail, anyone held on a technical violation, people who pose no physical threat to their communities, and people who are ill or dying.

The state has made concessions in a few of these areas. On April 3, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that people held pretrial for nonviolent offenses and those imprisoned for technical probation/parole violations could seek release from jail. On June 2, another SJC decision stated that people imprisoned under Massachusetts’s controversial Section 35 law, which allows for the involuntary incarceration of people with substance use problems—and of which Sheriff Cocchi has been a key supporter—could also seek release. But in the same June 2 ruling, the SJC declared that prisoners who have been sentenced for a crime would not be released due to COVID-19.

For Ahrens and DWM, these measures are insufficient. Massachusetts still isn’t releasing people fast enough. A Prison Policy Initiative report from mid-May shows that while many jails have significantly decreased their populations—Worcester County’s jail, for instance, had a 30% decrease at the time of the report—state prisons have hardly budged. Data from the ACLU of Massachusetts indicates an approximately 8% decrease in the state prison population since early April, but it’s unclear how many of these releases were granted to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and how many were already scheduled.

Meanwhile, prisoners continue to be routinely price-gouged for basic necessities like phone calls and hygiene supplies. The Department of Correction says it “provides soap and other hygiene items to inmates.” But the Prison Policy Initiative reports that in 2016, incarcerated people in Massachusetts bought over 245,000 bars of soap, spending more than $215,057 on this item alone, which raises significant questions about how available or tolerable these supplies are.

On the matter of phone calls, the Department of Telecommunications and Cable has imposed caps on the cost of calls for incarcerated people, 21 cents per minute for prepaid and debit card calls, and 25 cents for collect calls. But Securus Technologies, the primary telephone provider for Massachusetts’s jails, has regularly gone around these caps, sometimes charging a first-minute rate upwards of $3. The result has been ongoing institutionalized extortion of prisoners and their communities by jails, prisons, and the telecommunications companies like Securus. According to Prisoners’ Legal Services, “In 2018, Massachusetts prisons and jails combined made a reported $9,000,000 in commissions by charging prisoners’ families and loved ones outrageous prices to talk to their incarcerated loved ones.” With a few exceptions, this situation has been more or less unchanged during the pandemic.

Furthermore, “COVID-19 led to an explosion in the use of solitary confinement,” said Cassandra Bensahih, a longtime prison justice organizer, member of DWM, and coordinator of the group Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement. Massachusetts’s Criminal Justice Reform Act, signed into law in April 2018, included restrictions on the use of solitary confinement. But Bensahih and others say facilities have essentially continued the practice under a different name, like “segregated confinement” or “medical isolation.” And the pandemic has made things even worse.

Prisoners who show symptoms of COVID-19 are often moved directly into isolation, where they are deprived of almost all social contact and forced to endure highly unsanitary conditions. Evidence suggests that such practices of “segregation” don’t work. Per a recent article from Solitary Watch, even though harsh lockdowns across the state have kept prisoners in their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day since early April, nearly half the population of the women’s prison MCI-Framingham tested positive for the virus by mid-June.

One result of the resurgence of solitary confinement is that many prisoners have resisted being tested for COVID-19 and tried to hide when they have symptoms—for instance, Aime Matos’s partner, who concealed the fact he had cellulitis for fear he would be put in isolation.

Some facilities have retaliated against those who resist testing. In early May, ICE detainees at the Bristol County House of Corrections (one of several county jails in Massachusetts that have contracts with ICE, and which is infamous for abusive conditions) report being attacked with tear gas, pepper spray, and police dogs after barricading themselves in their unit. They said they believed the jail would use testing as an excuse to place them in solitary. One detainee alleges he was beaten by the sheriff, Thomas Hodgson, himself. Sheriff Hodgson denies the allegation.

Bensahih says prisons and jails must find better ways of dealing with the pandemic than placing people in solitary or solitary-like isolation. Even short of rapid decarceration, which would be the best response, Bensahih pointed out that many jails and prisons have plenty of unused space that could allow for more humane treatment and social distancing. “Solitary is not social distancing,” she said. “Solitary is torture.”

Decarceration in a whirlwind

As the pandemic rages on, BLM and anti-police protests persist, and new legislation and information come forward, the landscape of prison and jail organizing is changing. But a number of objectives remain consistent. Justin Helepololei, another member of DWM and co-founder of Great Falls Books Through Bars, outlined a few of the main things the network is working on. They’re pushing for free video and phone calls (there’s currently a bill in the state legislature that, if passed, would grant free phone calls to incarcerated people); reinstating socially-distant visitation (two other bills in progress, S.2662 and H.2047, seek to improve protect prisoners’ visitation rights); securing guaranteed access to adequate, nutritious food; and ending the use of restrictive housing or solitary confinement-like conditions to manage outbreaks of COVID-19.

Both Helepololei and Lois Ahrens stressed the importance of reenfranchising prisoners with felony convictions, who lost the right to vote in 2000 when Acting Governor Paul Cellucci retaliated against prison organizing by amending the State Constitution to take it away from them. Last year, Senator Adam Hinds introduced a proposal to amend the Constitution and restore their voting rights. It didn’t pass, but Helepololei has hope for the future, saying the campaign strengthened the statewide network of organizers, both in and outside the carceral system, who will continue to push for reenfranchisement.

When asked about the core values that guide DWM’s work, Helepololei said two things: “decarceration toward abolition,” and a firm belief that the people most impacted by the system, namely incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people and their communities, should lead the movement. Helepololei gave the example of Jafet Robles, an organizer with Neighbor to Neighbor, himself formerly incarcerated, who fought mandatory minimum sentences and worked on the 2018 criminal justice reform bill. Robles was murdered in Chicopee in 2017, and despite widespread grief, outrage, and calls for “Justice for Jafet,” the case was never solved. For Helepololei, Robles’s legacy serves as a reminder that people who are directly affected by incarceration are also the most important leaders in the abolition movement.

As for the idea of “decarceration toward abolition,” Helepololei explained it this way: “We wanna get people out now, but it doesn’t stop now.” For DWM, immediate relief is part of building toward lasting transformation.

Bensahih said she’s excited about new groups like DWM and the energy that collaborations between longtime organizers like herself and newcomers can create. “We’re in the whirlwind right now,” she said. “We have to jump in and ride it.”

The force of the whirlwind, no doubt, has to do with the convergence of the pandemic and the uprisings against the systemic nature of police violence against Black and Brown people. For “abolitionists-at-heart” like Bensahih, DWM, and Lois Ahrens, it’s essential to remember that policing and incarceration are fundamentally connected.

“I want people to remember that this is one long chain,” said Ahrens. “It starts with policing, and it goes through all of these permutations till we get to criminalization of people and mass incarceration.”

Bensahih made much the same point. “We have to loop everything together, we have to connect every piece of this, like an ecosystem. When we say ‘defund the police,’ we’re looking to defund the DOC also.”

Though the future is uncertain and the present is tumultuous, both Ahrens and Bensahih say they feel heartened by the current moment of radicalization and outrage.

“I’m really encouraged by the crowds of people, but I’m hurt that we’re here again,” reflected Bensahih, who took part in public school desegregation and remembers the riots after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. “I’m hurt that my 11-year-old granddaughter has to make videos about the killings of Black people.”

“I tell her that I’m fighting so her future will be better.”

For data on the spread of COVID-19 inside jails and prisons, see the UCLA Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project, the Massachusetts ACLU’s Tracking COVID-19 in Massachusetts Prisons and Jails, and Prisoners’ Legal Services’s COVID-19 page.

Jack Chelgren is a writer living in Easthampton. Photo Google Earth.

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