As long as prisons exist, I've generally been a fan of the idea behind work release programs like the one in the Maine State Prison system, where incarcerated people learn skills like woodworking that will help them get jobs upon release. Or at least, it's the least worst work-related prison program I've come across. Most people who spend time in prison are usually driven there through a series of events complicated by poverty, so it makes sense to provide them with rehabilitative opportunities that they can keep them from experiencing the same depths of desperation after they've served their sentences.
That being said, there is nothing practical about this:
Bill Humphrey is a city councillor in Newton, Massachusetts, and also hosts a podcast called Arsenal for Democracy. He came across this jarring tidbit while researching for a recent podcast episode on prison labor.
According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette:
More than 500 people participate in MassCor [the Massachusetts Department of Corrections production company], and compensation ranges between $.85 and 1.45 an hour. Around the country, in 2017, wages for inmates in state-owned businesses like MassCor averaged between $.33 and $1.41 per hour, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a research nonprofit based in Easthampton that focuses on mass incarceration and advocates for reform.
I received a cutting board from the Maine State Prison Showroom as a wedding gift. Read the rest
In 2018, I was commissioned by Civic Ensemble of Ithaca, New York to help devise and write a new play based on their ReEntry Theatre Program — a free arts initiative for people who've experienced incarceration and/or drug rehabilitation. The program participants developed the raw material through theatre games and writing exercises, which I then took and transformed into a full-length script.
Streets Like This originally ran for 3 sold out performances in May 2018, featuring a cast of program participants, whose personal stories of addiction and incarceration inspired the script. The people involved in this show from the start have gone on to make some tremendous policy changes for social services and criminal justice reform in Tompkins County, New York, and decided to remount the show again this spring.
Then the COVID-19 outbreak happened.
But the cast and company got together one last time and filmed their production without an audience. It's streaming now for free between April 30 and May 17, 2020; and since they can't raise any money through ticket sales, they're hoping the video will bring in some donations so they can keep this program going.
Working on this play and getting to know these actors was an eye-opening and inspiring experience for me, and I know it's had a positive impact on their lives, too. I hope you'll check it out, and if you're feeling generous, throw some money their way so they can keep doing good work in changing the ways our society deals with addiction and incarceration. Read the rest
Prisons in America are already overcrowded, under-supported, and maddeningly profitable for the people who made them that way. And when people die in incarceration under more normal circumstances, it still tends to get ignored or covered up. As a result, some of them have been struggling with how to deal with social distancing, quarantine, and general medical safety during this pandemic. (Case-in-point: Joe Exotic may have been exposed to coronavirus.)
Even in that context, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections offered a particularly absurd excuse for their less-than-bare-minimum effort in treating incarcerated people with basic humanity. According to CourtWatch MA, a volunteer community group that acts as a watchdog for the state prison system, the state's latest prison capacity report claims that the DOC is prepared for a capacity of 7,492 people. But there are 7,916 people currently incarcerated by the state — nearly 500 more than that design/rated capacity. (The state also claims that its operational capacity is 10,157, which is not consistent with the data available records requests.
This week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court asked the sheriffs of 14 counties to provide information about their handling of this overcrowding during the coronavirus outbreak, to ensure that they're all adhering to proper CDC guidelines. Here's the first question they asked:
Approximately what percentage of inmates or detainees sleeps within six feet of another inmate or detainee? Individuals in disciplinary isolation should be excluded from this estimate.
That seems fairly straight-forward. But the sheriff Hampden County responded that "0% sleeps within six feet of one another" at the main institution, the women's facility, the regional recovery and wellness center, and the pre-release center in that county. Read the rest
Over at Slate, Dan Kois offers an incisive look at the status quo frustrations that have long affected daily American life — and how they're now disappearing, because we're in a crisis. To some people, this will of course conform to their aspirational perspective of the country: that the American system has always been great and good, and the fact that people (and corporations) do good deeds in times of crisis is proof that free market capitalism is perfect and thus good.
But what if we always offered paid sick leave to hourly employees? What if the Internet wasn't throttled by providers eager to make another quick buck? What if we never had to deal with the arbitrary airline limits on liquids, just to reinforce the TSA security theatre performance?
What if kindness and empathy were the rule, and not the exception?
Read the rest
Up until now activists and customers have been meant to believe that the powers that be could never change these policies—it would be too expensive, or too unwieldy, or would simply upset the way things are done. But now, faced suddenly with an environment in which we’re all supposed to at least appear to be focused on the common good, the rule-makers have decided it’s OK to suspend them. It’s a crisis, after all. Everyone’s got to do their part.
But it’s also worth asking if we are willing to allow governments and corporations to return to business as usual. When everything’s back to normal, will we accept cities cutting off their poorest residents’ water, or evicting the sick, or throwing someone in jail because they can’t afford to pay a fine?
I've been a huge fan of Elizabeth Warren since I saw her yelling at a cop during the 2012 Boston Pride Parade. I generally think that her past history as a Republican should actually be a selling point, as it demonstrates her capacity to examine the available evidence and change her mind. But one place where Bernie still stands out in front is his willingness to extend voting rights to people who are incarcerated.
I'm not surprised that Warren is hesitant to go all the way in allowing people to vote while still incarcerated — after all, unexamined biases against incarcerated people are extremely common — but I am disappointed.
The more I thought about it, however, I began to consider how strange it is that felon voting rights (during or after incarceration) tend to be such a partisan issue. As a progressive, I've come around to understand why it matters, as all human rights matter, particularly in an unjust legal system. As much as I hate it, I can at least understand the true authoritarian racist argument in favor of retaining free labor through a loophole-by-design of the 13th Amendment.
But when I think about the conservatives I know, and the philosophies they claim to adhere to, that's where the contradictions arise. For example, let's ignore the contrived veneer respectability that shines on every deceptive video from PragerU, and take their argumentative claims at face value and in good faith. PragerU pumps out plenty of content defending the Electoral College by rationalizing it around a fear of mob rule, or the "tyranny of the majority." Read the rest
People like to think they're objective. I get it; it's a good thing to strive to be. As a white dude, I know firsthand that it's easy to assume that you're coming from the "default" perspective, and thus, are more capable of being rationally objective than other, non-white dudes.
But that's wrong. Because if you're brainwashed into seeing your popular mainstream status quo assumptions as "default," then you're actually not objectively considering every possible factor. And this tweet might be the best, most succinct example to explain this:
In other words: we assume that someone can't be objective about prison reform if their own parent has been incarcerated. But what about the other way around? How can you be objective about prison reform if you don't have a parent that's been incarcerated? How can you rationally examine all of the evidence to form a conclusion, if you don't actually have firsthand knowledge of the social, financial, and emotional toll of incarceration? What biases might you be missing that you never even thought to consider because you assumed that your "default" position was automatically normal or correct?
In both situations, your objectivity will be tainted by your emotional response; the difference is that, as a society, we've arbitrarily decided that certain emotions are either proper or negligible when it comes to attaining our idealist objectivity. Read the rest