TESTIMONY GIVEN TO THE GOVERNOR’S COMMISSION ON CORRECTIONS REFORM, February 24, 2004 Dear Chairman Harshbarger and members of the Commission:
My name is Lloyd Fillion; I am chair of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, an organization working for humane, healing and effective criminal justice. We are comprised of professionals working within the broad field of criminal justice as well as community activists who spend many avocational hours weekly both as prison volunteers and within their communities working for change in our state’s approach to inmate rehabilitation. In addition we have a number of current and former inmates both as board members and as a part of our membership base. My comments are a reflection of the experiences and views gathered from all of these constituencies.
We believe it important for this Commission to understand the breadth of dissatisfaction with the Commonwealth’s approach to criminal justice, especially regarding the methodologies driving the administration of our prisons. The possible repetition of stories in today’s hearing only begins to approximate the numbers of groups, large and small, working to overcome the disastrous conditions that the Department of Corrections (DOC) has intentionally constructed.
Hopefully this Commission will seek testimony from those living within the correctional institutions under review. CJPC has found many thoughtful citizens who are currently confined, and who have used their imprisonment to come to understand themselves and the impact that violence has on any community. The commission will discover some of the soundest advice from among those the DOC is charged to confine, and who thereby understand the DOC from within a very intense relation. In particular, I urge you to speak to the officers of the Lifers Group, Inc. at Norfolk MCI with whom I have had an extensive correspondence.
Do not think that these many advocacy organizations of citizens as well as inmate organizations work in ignorance, or are dismissive, of the trauma of the victims of the violence which predicated the imprisonment of our prison population. Rather it is in expectation of reducing the repetition of those crimes by helping inmates turn their lives around and thereby reduce the reliance on violence, that these groups and individual citizens work. This is work done despite the current DOC and often with opposition by that agency.
There is an agreement that our prisons do not address the fundamental roles that we expect from the DOC other than that of containing inmates. While the DOC states as a part of its mission the goal of maintaining and enhancing family ties, in practice much is done to separate inmates psychologically from their communities, and to wear down inmates’ families and friends, discouraging the healing and growth that is necessary for the rehabilitation of individuals and the restoration of self esteem. There are prisoners who have expressed to those CJPC members who volunteer within the prisons a fear of being released, a fear of not finding a job or a place to live or adapting to the different social structure outside the wall.
There has been a dramatic decrease in minimum security and transitional housing accompanying the increase in high level security prisons. Preparing inmates for the transition back to society is a process that a good prison administration begins the day inmates enter prison, yet with the DOC, the typical experience is a half hour talk within the week or so before release.
There are little or no educational opportunities or vocational training available provided by the Department of Corrections. I am attaching to this statement a copy from one state institution - Bay State Correctional Institution - of its monthly “Activity Schedule”. One poetry class a month, a weekly “Group Psychology” and a “History of Islam” class, and two art classes per week are the curriculum at this institution of 300 beds. Beyond this are support groups organized by the inmates themselves, scrabble and chess clubs, and daily religious services. No computer classes, no courses in any science or math or language skills. At Norfolk MCI, with 1000 beds, there are reportedly only 20 computers in the one classroom available to inmates with long waiting lists to take the “Office 2000 workshop.” Perhaps the biggest mistake in corrections in the last several decades has been the almost total elimination of college level programs for inmates. As these educational programs were paid for by private institutions there is no explanation for that elimination other than inflicting further punishment; of course the result has been released inmates that are less prepared for the job market.
Finally, there is an unfortunate history of overlooked abuses within our correctional institutions. Theft of prisoner property by correctional staff, over reliance on physical abuse by correctional officers, lack of privacy of inmates’ personal records, inappropriate proscribing of psychotropic medications, use of discipline citations as a response for personal antagonisms, and sabotage of positive programs by some of the personnel are but some of the living conditions that exacerbate tensions within our correctional institutions. There appears an assumption by the correctional system administrators that prisoners cannot be expected to tell the truth, so the administration chooses to believe only what correctional officers and other staff say. Such an assumption is what accounts for this history of abuse being overlooked.
A Few Solutions
Much of the DOC needs major overhaul and even fundamental change. These changes must be based on the encouraging of trust and respect for others, among and between inmates and correctional officers and other staff, and administration. There must be adequate staff training so that the breakdowns in mutual respect that are bound to occur are always seen as deviations from the expected norm, and not accepted as the norm. Consideration for others must begin from the top and filter down.
Perhaps the first sign of change will be an increased transparency of the DOC. Currently there is a lack of dependable, public, information about the Department’s programs and their effectiveness, budget priorities, staff accountability, health services, classification, and re-entry preparation. Staff and volunteers are forbidden to talk to the media and some of the information that comes through the Public Information Officer appears to distort the truth. Whistleblower protection must be afforded those employees and/or volunteers who see problems that need airing.
Other witnesses will address significant specifics such as classification, cooperative interaction with the parole board and support for its decisions, expanded medical services and mental counseling, re-examination of disciplinary techniques, especially but not limited to the use of isolation, substance treatment, over-reliance on psycho-tropic drugs, and enhanced training for staff.
Personnel policies that promote the hiring of more Spanish-speaking correctional officers and counselors should be put in place. The current concentration of Hispanics in the gang unit at the maximum security prison in Walpole suggests a kind of stereotyping and suspicion that resultsfrom notbeing able to communicate. It breeds anger and a feeling of powerlessness on the part of both corrections officers and inmates due to the language barrier. Too often the correctional officer response is to write up inmates conversing in Spanish as an STG- Security Threat Group.
Inmates should pay no more than the lowest phone rate available to the public for phone calls placed to family and/or friends. It is unconscionable for the DOC to inhibit family ties in order to balance some other part of its budget with such a tax.
Computers should be widely available to inmates. Currently at MCI- Norfolk, and likely at other institutions, individual cells are already wired for cable television. There are many sources of donated computers, which could be made available to inmates at no cost. Computers could exponentially expand educational opportunities again at no cost to the DOC. Enclosed is a memo written by Harlo Mayne of MCI- Norfolk which gives further detail.
Along with and in support of the changes that are needed, CJPC urges this Commission to recommend a permanent oversight board for the state’s correctional facilities. This board should be charged with reporting to the executive and legislative branches regarding the existing environment, or living and working conditions, within the correctional institutions of the Commonwealth, both state and county. Additionally, the oversight board should be expected to make appropriate recommendations to improve that environment in order that conditions which may eventually lead to confrontations at various levels can be addressed proactively. And this board needs to be funded with investigative staff, and quite possibly to be given the power to compel testimony.
The board must be citizen- that is community-driven. We should not expect the executive office to oversee itself. The General Court has oversight of executive agencies through its committee structure; however, the existing committees charged with oversight of the DOC have not devoted the necessary time or committed the resources to fully comprehend the problem. Most legislators do not find prisons worthy of years of their legislative careers; those who do are inundated with many other concerns.
This board must reflect all of the stakeholders, from the prison administration to the staff to the inmate population in addition to the public. There is a lengthy history of attempted legislative efforts to construct such a committee. In the past, partisan biases have thwarted all efforts which recognize the roll that outside educated citizens can play.
The oversight board should be mindful of the legitimate needs of both corrections officers and inmates. This would include staffing levels and training for Correctional Officers. Medical treatment and mental health counseling, and educational, job training and transitional programs for all inmates need to be reviewed. Substance abuse treatment should be monitored for its effectiveness and availability.
Despite the recent murder of John Geoghan, we need to look at the over reliance on isolation, and maximum security prisons with the attendant separation of inmates one from the other. Issues around classification and recidivism rates, coordination with the parole board regarding the need for transitional housing under DOC supervision are also issues for this oversight board.
Too often changes have been instituted either by court order or by legislative statute, with those changes effectively disappearing within a short time, with either the courts or the legislature not aware of the lack of continuity. A standing watchdog board with the authority to report to the government and to the citizenry can only aid in ensuring that such changes as are mandated become a part of the DOC institutional systems.
At a hearing by the Joint Committee on Public Safety last October, the Secretary of Public Safety acknowledged that the direction of the past decade –the “tough on crime” decade, has been both economically and socially costly. He briefly outlined the basis for the increased costs. However, his proposed response appeared to accept the current economic and social costs, and depended on the further cost of extending the oversight of the prison population through mandated post release supervision.
Nowhere did he question the advisability of mandatory minimum sentencing. In addressing the release of inmates directly from high security to the street, nowhere did he address the broken relation between the DOC and the parole board, which failed relation substantively discourages inmates from applying for parole. There was no direct acknowledgement of the failure of the DOC to provide adequate transitional programs and housing to enable inmates to acclimate themselves from one side of the wall to the other. The Secretary’s approach leaned heavily on faulting inmates for problems which are the state’s making.
CJPC hopes that this Commission will come to understand that only broad systemic changes in the commonwealth’s approach to corrections will respond to the failures of our current approaches to corrections.
Too often our correctional systems prejudge inmates as incapable of rehabilitation and even opposed to change. Inmates are viewed as not deserving of respect and unable to handle responsibility. This is, of course, a natural consequence of prison work under the current conditions. Certainly some inmates are not ready to work within an environment based on trust. However, unless a basic level of trust and dignity is offered, it is that much more unlikely that rehabilitation will be achieved, and that the fundamental issues of violence about which recidivism offers testimony will be addressed.
The CJPC Board appreciates the difficulty of the work this Commission has, particularly as our community’s leadership at many levels have relied on a lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach over the past decade and more. However we hope that a level of courage will accompany, and bold steps will come from, your work. A significant constituency of inmates both current and former, as well as their families and many other citizen/volunteers and activists are prepared to support any efforts which move our prisons towards houses of healing.