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Walking away from prisons and jails in Massachusetts

Group marches across state to stop new prison and jail construction

By Sierra Dickey

300+ people took part in a 90-mile march from Springfield to the Massachusetts State Housein September to demand an end to new prison and jail construction. The march and the organizing behind it marks major growth in the movement for prison abolition in Massachusetts. 

“This is what happens when you follow the leadership of Black women,” said Reverend Rahsaan D. Hall at a rally on day six of the weeklong walk, gesturing at the crowd of marchers gathered outside the Suffolk County Jail. “We won’t see any more new prisons because of the leadership of Black women and allies.”

Among the marchers were activists, college students, children, and formerly incarcerated people. They walked miles between sheriff’s offices, gas station Dunkins, county jails, and state prisons across more than half the Commonwealth to demand an end to the incarceration of women and girls. The march was organized by the nonprofits Families for Justice as Healing and The National Council in collaboration with Mass Peace Action and the coalition Building Up People Not Prisons. 

Culminating in a press conference at the state house on Monday, September 13, the crowd’s leaders demanded that legislators pass S2030, a bill that puts a five year moratorium on building new prisons and jails, and lets those most impacted by incarceration lead the way on developing its alternatives.

Written originally by formerly incarcerated women, S2030 was introduced in February by Jo Comerford (D – Hampshire, Franklin, and Worcester) in the Senate and Chynah Tyler (D – 7th Suffolk District) in the House. If passed, the bill would put a five year freeze on any spending towards new prison construction, while allowing for routine maintenance on existing facilities. This would also interrupt the Massachusetts Department of Corrections’ (DOC) current plans to build a new women’s prison on the grounds of Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk with a pricetag of $50 million. 

Despite clear and ongoing criticism from the most incarcerated and policed communities in Massachusetts, the DOC continues to pursue this new build. Indeed, no Massachusetts leadership made comment when HDR Architecture, the firm DOC contracted with to design the facility, was recently exposed by Vice for spying on activists who oppose their projects. The Shoestring reached out to the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, who oversees the DOC’s contracting, but they declined to comment for this story. 

The people organizing for the bill have had a busy year. In June, Building Up People Not Prisons delivered a letter of support to the bill’s legislative sponsors signed by 125 different organizations, businesses, and civic groups from across the state. Over 70 testified in support of the bill during the first Senate hearing on July 20th, and a Joint Committee hearing took place recently on October 5. 

On October 5, advocates, allies, and directly impacted people gathered in an online meeting to testify in support of H1905 / S2030. “We can put the money where we can see it make an impact,” said founder of Justice 4 Housing Leslie Credle, referring to the taxpayer dollars spent on incarceration. 

“Our community needs resources, but the government chooses to overpolice and underfund, prosecute, oppress, and destabilize, destroy. I could go on and on, but I think you get it,” Credle said in closing. 

In regards to the timeliness of the bill, Senator Comerford said over email: “As we approach a post-COVID world, where brutal inequities along race and class lines have been exposed for all to see, we must invest in initiatives that would address the root causes of incarceration and further decrease the number of women and their families caught in a debilitating spiral.” 

“I’m proud to have filed this bill and to lock arms with tenacious advocates and legislative colleagues to advance it this session. S.2030, the Senate version of the bill, had a hearing before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight earlier this summer. The bill is currently within the same committee.”

“No new prisons, no new jails.”

On day six of the September march, a group of 150 made their way from Cambridge Commons down Mass Ave and over the river to South Bay, where they ended the day with a rally on the sidewalk outside the Suffolk County Jail. Over those six miles, they passed by the bustle of Harvard students, pandemic-shuttered restaurants, and exercisers on the esplanade. 

A group of young girls of color lead the marchers, holding up a banner and taking turns on the microphone to chant “no new prisons, no new jails.” Bike marshalls in neon vests darted ahead of the crowd to secure intersections, and walking marshalls handed out flyers to onlookers and water to participants.

“It’s really cool to see people from all over the state take on this issue, and even when they’re not directly impacted,” said Shruthi Venkata, a senior at Harvard who organizes with Harvard Prison Divestment. 

Another marcher, Austin Frizzell, had been working hard on advocating for the bill all summer. “I know that the bill is exhaustively researched, and I know that it has some real answers for us to think about. What do we want to spend on in our communities? How do we actually redirect funds to where they need to go?” he said.

Reflecting on the July Senate hearing, Frizzell shared that the bill saw “the most testimony that anybody’s seen in this legislative session… And it’s rare that we can have something so radical, but also that has such wide support from so many people.”

When they arrived outside the Suffolk County House of Correction, the crowd began to cheer and wave up at incarcerated people peering down at the street. “We see you! We see you!” the group chanted, and folks inside banged on the glass they could reach in between bars. Someone inside used toothpaste to spell out an all-caps name on their window.

Pointing up at the high rise portion of the jail, Stacey Borden said, “I don’t feel more safe because they’re in here! We can do more than this.” Borden is an advocate and formerly incarcerated woman who spent nine days jailed in the Suffolk County building years ago. 

Borden is also launching New Beginnings, a community-based reentry home for women leaving prison. She pointed out that many of the people incarcerated in Suffolk County can look down and see their own neighborhood. “I can’t even live in my own community because I can’t afford it, but we can afford this!” she said.

Supporters of the moratorium bill often question how the state of Massachusetts can afford to spend millions of public funds on prisons and jails, but skimp on other immediate needs of their constituents like housing, healthcare, and drug treatment. 

The geographical makeup of the marchers demonstrated that the moratorium effort is not only a concern for liberal Boston residents. “I think people are interested in every part of the state. And I think it could be easy to dismiss this. It’s like, yeah, that’s just what some people in Boston want. No, I think it’s like, how do we actually get people what they want, what they know they need?” said Frizzell. 

Frizzell also shared that as the march passed through Natick, people came out of their houses to speak to the crowd. “What are you? What are you talking about, $50 million? That sounds like a ridiculous amount of money.” 

The Long View

Abolitionist organizers are grounded in the long view. In Massachusetts, they continue to make small advances as new obstacles pop up in every corner. Soon after the march ended, activists discovered that $ 1.8 million had been approved in July for new jail spending in Suffolk County. Many responded with shock and terror, since four people have died in custody in Suffolk County since July 2021, and their newly approved $1.8 million is an exceedingly large sum—for context, the amount is ten times what was allotted to the Hampshire county jail this year. 

“This is a disgusting grab to sustain jails even as the numbers decline and the people say NO,” tweeted movement leader Andrea James in response to the news. 

Activist and reporters quickly clarified that the Suffolk County sheriff’s office will be detaining people from other state agencies and other districts in their jails. The state budget reads: “the office shall enter into agreements to provide detention services to various law enforcement agencies and municipalities and shall determine and collect fees for said detentions from said law enforcement agencies and municipalities…”

On September 25th, The Boston Globe reported that Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins proposes to house homeless people, many experiencing drug addiction, in a shuttered 100-bed ICE Detention facility in his district. 

Three days later, Tompkins appeared on GBH Boston to detail his proposal: “There are also naysayers that feel that people shouldn’t be in an incarceration facility… and to that I say, ‘Talk to legislators about putting more money out on the street to create beds for mental health and substance abuse.’” According to advocates, the moratorium bill, which would hold back $50 million or more from prisons and jails, could do just that. 

Sierra Dickey is a writer, educator, and organizer in Vermont. Read her on Twitter @dierrasickey. Photo courtesy of the author.

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