Prison labor in Massachusetts is used to manufacture Blue Lives Matter merchandise

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

County sheriffs claim that prisoners sleeping head-to-toe count as being "six feet apart" for coronavirus safety

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

Jails are replacing family visits with video chat

Jails around the country are replacing in-person visits with "video visitations," which means kids, parents,  and spouses of inmates won't be able to see each other in real life, only through a small video monitor. This depressing photo is from GTL, who provides video-visitation services to prisons. Read the rest