By Benjamin Sacks, J.D. ’17
To my left, three people sat around a table playing what appeared to be poker. To my right, another pair played Mah Jongg. Behind the tables, one man was holding his dog on a leash, another was talking on the phone, and a third was placing an order for a meal. They all gave me a quizzical look when I entered their room: What was I doing there?
Prisoners at Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) in Concord aren’t used to visitors popping into their living quarters, but there we were. The twenty-five of us students in the Judicial Processes in the Trial Courts Clinic, Hon. John C. Cratsley (Ret.), and our tour guide, prison superintendent Lois Russo, standing in the common area which the prisoners’ cells (two to a room) face. We were on a tour of the prison as a culmination to our semester working with various judges in the courts of Massachusetts. After helping judges write opinions and perform legal research, it was only appropriate that we see the consequences of some of our judges’ sentencing decisions.
The prisoners seemed content enough playing their games and making their phone calls, but there was no mistaking that we were in a prison. The impersonal fluorescent lights, uncarpeted cement floors, and heavy metal doors with special locks throughout the facility served as a constant reminder that the people inside were there to stay. During our tour of the facilities, we were escorted by a minimum of two security guards. Each time we moved from one area to another, we went through two sets of doors, the first of which had to close before the second would open, so as to prevent unauthorized use.
Life isn’t easy in prison. At MCI Concord, inmates spend each night in their locked cells, and many hours of the day within the confines of the common area just outside. Surely, poker can only be entertaining for so long. There are prescribed visiting hours, and inmates are entitled to at least one hour a day outside, and one hour of exercise per day, five days per week. We did not go to the outside recreational area, but the indoor exercise area (still exposed to the cold outside air) was nothing but a box, with concrete floor, ceiling, and walls.
Prisoners can earn credits that can be spent on snacks, phone calls, or other amenities. They can also earn credits for sentence reductions by performing services within or outside the prison, depending on their security clearances. For example, a number of them receive training on how to domesticate and train service dogs (like the one we saw) for those with special needs. For two years at a time, they live with the dogs that they train.
Credits are nice, but they are nothing compared to the freedom we felt when we exited the prison after our visit and went to Judge Cratsley’s house, where we enjoyed a warm, home-cooked meal. Our visit reinforced my feeling that the only sentence I want to experience is the one comprised of words.