Category: Corrections (page 1 of 2)

White Supremacy Culture, the Right to Comfort, and Discussing Recovery


By: Marty Strauss (’23)

Substance use disorder is a widespread yet incredibly personal hardship. It affects countless people across the world, but in many different ways along lines such as race and class, and along varying bonds of family and friendship. Recovery, it follows, is also a deeply personal endeavor. But in prison, the state often seems more concerned with checking a box of “treatment” than with making room for the personal nuances of real recovery.

Rachel Schwarz and I saw this reticence up close in the case of a recent PLAP client who we’ll call Logan (not their real name). Logan enrolled in a prison-sponsored class on recovery from addiction, to better themselves and as part of preparation for their eventual release. In the class, it seemed at first that Logan was encouraged to speak their mind. Class participation was, in fact, required.

Logan was always respectful with their comments, especially if they disagreed with the teacher, making sure to preface critical comments by noting that they were not directed at the teacher personally. But being respectful does not ensure that everyone will appreciate a comment. When Logan, despite being sure to clarify that they meant no offense to the teacher, expressed an opinion that they might benefit from being taught by someone who had personally experienced addiction, the teacher felt uncomfortable.

The story should have ended there. Some remarks are uncomfortable, especially when grappling with an issue as complex as substance use disorder. And in fact, the teacher continued with class, not chastising Logan for their remark nor bringing in a correctional officer to claim that there was a problem. After class, however, a correctional officer prevailed upon the teacher to write an incident report about Logan’s remark. That incident report became the basis for a disciplinary report. Logan’s expression of their opinion, in a class where participation was both required and encouraged, was distorted into an allegation of “grandstanding” and “making discrediting comments,” amounting to “insolent language” in the prison’s view. With these disciplinary charges pending, Logan was also—to their surprise—removed from the class the next day.

If these allegations sound full of hot air, they should. When Rachel and I asked for the rules and guidelines of the recovery class, so that we could see which rules Logan had allegedly broken, we were denied this request on the basis that such rules were “not relevant to the charges.” Moreover, the teacher of the class did not agree to show up to the disciplinary hearing. In the end, fortunately, Rachel and I helped Logan win a not guilty finding on all the charges against them, and he avoided further penalties. Still, Logan was unable to complete this class and it remains to be seen if they will have the opportunity to rejoin an addiction class.

At an antiracism training earlier this year, we studied various elements of white supremacy culture, such as perfectionism, either/or thinking, and worship of the written word. I was struck by how many of these elements often make up the basis of a disciplinary report against our clients. In Logan’s case, the white supremacist “right to comfort” is front and center. In white supremacy culture, the only dialogue permitted is that which does not make people uncomfortable. Only when biases are not challenged, and inadequacies are not exposed, is “open dialogue” permitted.

In prison, this “right” is enforced through disciplinary action like the ticket that Logan received. It is but one way of many that our incarcerated clients are not permitted to freely speak their mind or express themselves – even in a space that is purportedly set up by the prison to help clients work through a challenge as daunting as addiction. And it is one of many carceral logics that, to create a truly just and equitable society, must be abolished. If we truly wish to help one another recover, we must be prepared for it to be uncomfortable.

See No Evil


By: Joel  Thompson

The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team has published a follow-up story to its detailed account of the tactics used by Department of Correction officials and officers to “restore order” at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, in the weeks after an assault by multiple prisoners on correctional officers in one housing unit, on January 10, 2020. The prisoners involved in the January 10 assault were subdued by responding officers and were immediately transferred to other prisons. They were later indicted under state laws that provide enhanced sentences for assaulting correctional officers.    

A prison-wide lockdown followed, and then a flurry of assaults by correctional officers on unrelated prisoners. This was not restoring order. Teams of officers attacked people who had nothing to do with the events of January 10. The two subjects of the first Spotlight article, Robert Silva-Prentice and Dionisio Paulino, have filed suit against prison officials for authorizing and carrying out the assault, and for issuing false disciplinary reports against them afterward as a way of covering up the brutality. The subject of the follow-up story, Isaias Torres-Vega, was also assaulted despite playing no role in the January 10 assault. 

They were not alone. As the first Spotlight article describes, prisoners at SBCC contacted Prisoners’ Legal Services with 118 reports of excessive force by officers in the weeks after January 10, 2020, a dramatic increase from the 4 reports made over the same period in 2019. Officers who assaulted these people frequently issued them disciplinary reports, accusing them of assaulting staff. This wave of violence, given its timing and location, bears all the marks of collective punishment.   

Could abuse of this magnitude come and go with no fallout for its participants? The latest Spotlight piece highlights the role of one correctional officer, who may or may not have been disciplined for excessive force.  It is hard to say, since information concerning these assaults and the outcome of any investigation thereof is not readily forthcoming. The reticence of prison officials goes well beyond this one officer’s actions. Consider the fact that video footage of the cell extraction and canine assault on Mr. Silva-Prentice and Mr. Paulino did not reach the public until August of 2021, after prison officials sought and failed to obtain a gag order preventing its disclosure.  

A prison system limiting access to information is nothing new. Prisons are the least transparent of our taxpayer-funded endeavors. For decades, judges and lawmakers were told – and largely accepted – that it must be this way, that any hint of daylight will jeopardize security. For decades, prisoners and their loved ones have been the victims of this opacity. (Note, however, that this opacity is selective. The same officials who fought disclosure of officer brutality were, on January 10, 2020, breathless in their rush to disseminate video footage of the assault on officers. It was available in time for the evening news. There is no principled stance here, just a belief that you should only see what they want you to see.) 

People sentenced to prison are told that they are being held accountable for their wrongs. They are told that actions have consequences. But in prison, they find that only some people’s actions have consequences, and accountability is not a two-way street. Nowhere was that more evident than at SBCC after January 10, 2020. 

 Over the years, PLAP’s students have defended hundreds of incarcerated clients against prison disciplinary reports. The allegations run the gamut from minor infractions to violent or destructive acts. The case of the prisoner who is beaten by a team of officers, then charged with assaulting them, is nothing new to us. What was new in 2020 was the volume of such cases, which was unprecedented. While unable to represent all of those requesting help, PLAP students defended over 20 individuals who were issued nearly 40 disciplinary reports at SBCC in the weeks following January 10, 2020. Several of these disciplinary reports alleged that the client assaulted correctional officers, an accusation officers made after assaulting the client. Those same clients were issued additional disciplinary reports, alleging other violations. These cases took months to resolve, with PLAP students operating remotely because of the COVID pandemic.  

Some notable similarities emerged among those clients who were assaulted, then accused of assaulting staff: 

  1. They were not involved with the January 10 assault on officers. That fact bears repeating. It was not disputed by prison officials. People across the prison, with no involvement in the events of January 10, were summarily attacked. This was not the outraged response of a few employees in the heat of the moment; it was a calculated response, coordinated and carried out in the days and weeks that followed. 
  2. They were Black and Brown. Like the men profiled in the Spotlight articles, PLAP’s clients who were assaulted and then accused of assaulting staff were Black and Brown people. This fact is predictable, with disproportionate minority representation in the state prison population generally and even more so at maximum-security SBCC. But it remains notable. These assaults were indiscriminate, but they were not completely indiscriminate.
  3. They posed no threat. There are occasions when a confrontation arises out of a dispute between an incarcerated person and staff, in a housing unit or other large area with other people around and a potential for volatility, and officers use force to end it. That was not the situation with any of these cases. PLAP’s clients were alone or with a cellmate, bothering no one. Officers entered and assaulted a defenseless target. Clients were struck, sprayed with OC gas, shot with pepperballs, and attacked with Tasers. Officers continued to assault people even after they were restrained. Two clients had dreadlocks pulled out or cut off while they were handcuffed.
  4. Many of them are now out of prison. Given that SBCC is a maximum-security prison, one could be forgiven for assuming that its occupants are serving the longest sentences. That is not the case. At least one-third of PLAP’s clients from SBCC finished their sentences and were released in the eighteen months after January 2020. People who were assaulted, as punishment for actions they played no part in, were soon thereafter discharged from DOC custody. The Department’s Mission Statement includes preparing people “for successful re-entry into the community.” This is an interesting reentry plan, to say the least. What we do to people in prison does not stay in prison. We may hope that when a person’s prison sentence ends, he returns to the community with a new understanding of justice. He probably does, but it is not the understanding we would like him to have.  

In defending their clients against these assault allegations, PLAP students also discovered common features in the way that these assaults were carried out and investigated: 

  1. An evidence-free selection of targets. Staff assaults often took the form of cell extractions, approved by senior officials based on nebulous allegations of past or predicted future wrongdoing. No specific details about these past or future wrongs was forthcoming, nor was the basis for these allegations disclosed. Officers carrying out the assaults denied being advised of the reasons; the word simply came from above that the prisoner in question was to be moved.
  2. Supercharged teams wielding every piece of equipment – except the camera. Teams were assembled that included eight or more officers, with some officers donning protective gear while others carried various weapons, including pepperball guns, Tasers, OC spray, and attack dogs. These teams had time to arm themselves and bring every last piece of equipment, except for the handheld video camera that is supposed to document a use of force. The camera was left behind every time, and officer teams assaulted our clients in spaces out of view of the building’s surveillance cameras. Participating officers uniformly testified that the use of force was “spontaneous” and thus they could not have brought the handheld video camera, a laughable notion given the careful orchestration of these actions, but one which was uniformly endorsed by prison officials.
  3. An opportunity to get the story straight. Officers “debriefed” together after the assault, before writing their individual reports recounting what happened. They could also watch the surveillance video footage from the area – allowing them to learn what could and could not be seen on video – before writing their reports. The latter practice violates the DOC’s own regulations, but according to participating officers, it was condoned if not expected by supervisors.
  4. A concerted lack of interest in other sources of information.  Internal investigations often followed these assaults, but prisoners in the vicinity of the assault were not asked what they heard or saw. All that was gathered was the coordinated account of the participating officers. When departmental investigators are looking into alleged misconduct by prisoners, they are more than willing to interview other incarcerated people. The interest level in what prisoners have to say drops precipitously when investigating allegations of staff misconduct.
  5. Withholding of internal reports. When internal investigations into these assaults were conducted, the resulting reports were more often than not withheld from PLAP students and their clients.  Use of force reports, required by DOC regulations in each of these episodes, were also frequently withheld, save for a one-sentence boilerplate cover memo announcing that the review was complete and the use of force was compliant with policy. 

 This is not a truth-seeking process. It is a process designed to produce the desired outcome. Prison officials control the whole environment; no bystander is walking by with a smartphone. Prison officials decide whether evidence will exist (such as handheld video recordings), whether evidence that exists will be gathered (like witness accounts), and whether evidence will be reliable (including whether officers will be permitted to confer and review video before writing their reports). They are the only ones reviewing that evidence. When a client is found guilty and punished after a disciplinary hearing, the decision often states that the sanction “serves to educate the inmate as to the consequences of his actions.” Our clients are educated, to be sure. They learn that the difference between right and wrong depends not on what you have done, but on which uniform you are wearing. 

A self-policing prison system harms the people in custody, undermining their physical safety and any sense that there is legitimacy in government institutions. (It also harms those prison employees who observe the rules, but who know that there will be no consequences for those others who do not.) In 2020, the Governor endorsed the DOC’s self-policing capabilities, and the results are predictable: no results of any investigation into the collective punishment of SBCC prisoners, no announced disciplinary measures taken against staff, no announced policy changes designed to prevent future abuses. The Department, in its Vision Statement, aims to “eliminate Violence, Victimization, and Recidivism,” but it can make no valid claim to this vision so long as it engages in the very actions that it says it wants to eliminate.   

House Fails to Pass Conditional Medical Release Bill


(Photo credit)

On Wednesday, July 13, 2016, the Massachusetts Senate passed “An Act relative to Medical Placement of Terminal and Incapacitated Inmates”. This Act would have allowed for conditional medical parole of inmates with a terminal illness or permanent incapacitation, allowing them to receive medical or palliative care outside of the prison system.

The process would have required a county Sheriff or correctional facility Superintendent to recommend someone for conditional medical parole. The inmate would then have a hearing before the Parole Board to determine whether parole would be granted.  The parole was conditional and would have been revoked if the inmate was to recover.

The bill then moved on to the House of Representatives for consideration. As of July 18, 2016, it had been referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means.  The bill was not taken up in session, however, and therefore was not passed before session ended on Sunday, July 31 .  Passing this bill would have helped Massachusetts catch up with the 45 other states that currently have similar programs in place.

Attorney Joel Thompson had the following comment:

“I was thrilled to see the Senate pass a bill that would bring Massachusetts into line with 45 other states and the federal prison system, by giving state and county prison officials the ability to seek an appropriate placement outside of a correctional facility for prisoners who are terminally ill or permanently incapacitated.  The challenge was significant, as this bill lacks the kind of widespread interest seen with some other criminal justice proposals.  The management of dying and debilitated prisoners is neither a popular nor a pleasant topic, and it ultimately affects very few people.  That reality made PLAP’s involvement in this policy debate all the more important.

PLAP testified in favor of this bill based on the first-hand experiences of PLAPpers, who have represented the ill and the infirm, from terminal cancer patients to bedridden prisoners with dementia.  Not infrequently these prisoners receive disciplinary reports for behavior that is entirely attributable to their medical condition.  Such cases illustrate how prisons simply are not designed to manage these prisoners and their significant needs, yet Massachusetts does not allow Sheriffs or the Department of Correction to seek out a placement in a long term care facility or home hospice, under appropriate supervision.  PLAP identified the practical importance of making such a tool available.

While we ran out of time during this legislative session for the bill to reach a vote in the House, we see the Senate’s passage of the bill as an important step forward, one which will give us momentum heading into the next session.  I know PLAPpers will again step up to educate lawmakers about the bill and to advocate for its passage.”

Indiana House of Representatives passes $80 million criminal justice bill: $60 million to go towards treatment programs

Greg Steuerwald

Pictured above: Rep. Greg Steuerwald of Avon, Indiana (Co-author of the bill)

“Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, co-author of the bill, said during a discussion before Monday’s vote … ‘This is a way to make sure we’re keeping people out of jail and keeping families together.'”

The bill, geared towards addressing non-violent crimes, especially non-violent drug crimes, without the use of incarceration, passed unanimously. The bill will now be assigned to a committee in the Indiana Senate.

Click here for the full IndyStar article.

“Prison is Not for Punishment in Sweden. We Get People into Better Shape”

“Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: they have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us,” says Nils Öberg, director-general of Sweden’s prison and probation service.

The United States prison system is widely regarded as broken. Prisons were supposed to “rehabilitate” offenders who have wronged society by punishing them with a prison sentence. Unfortunately, the United States prison system has failed to rehabilitate thus producing high recidivism rates and overall crime. In Sweden, they are testing a new approach to crime. Oberg, the director-general, believes in addressing the inmate’s needs in order for he or she to correct the behavior that led them to prison in the first place. Sweden’s prison rates are significantly lower after they implemented this approach. They’ve also been fortunate enough to actually close prisons because of the lowered crime rate.

Why Isn’t Prison Justice on the Ballot This Tuesday?

Help Lady Liberty Out and Read the Full Article Here.


It seems as if criminal justice reform has been a mainstream topic since the 1970’s, but continuously we see prison reforms being halted or ignored by congress. The “tough on crime” approach was of major attention when New York City promised to harshly tackle the issue, but now that talk of reforming has taken place, the actual chance to take action on it seems to be absent from campaigns and ballots. Why? Well, most people pay attention to the problem of crime and then demand change, not the problems affecting criminals. However, as the article points out, America wears a scarlet letter of mass incarceration, which is an embarrassment for our country. And with so many people being affected by prison sentences, more people should be demanding change for the current system. Just because the crimes are happening behind prison walls doesn’t mean we can turn a blind eye. In fact, the author suggests, by reforming the criminal justice system, we will see a positive change in other areas, most notably, the economic inequality gap.


Changing Prison From the Inside Out




Mark Olmsted vowed to never forget his fellow inmates that he would leave behind after his release from a nine month prison stint, and he certainly did not. When he got out he continued to keep in contact with his former cellmates, sending them money here and there or just a friendly letter to let them know they haven’t been forgotten by the outside world. As he continued to campaign for prison reform, he received surprising, and seemingly impossible, tweets from an inmate in an Alabama prison. Turns out that some inmates in southern area prisons are networking via contraband cell phones to inform us, the outside world, of their lives and prison conditions. This network has come to be known as the Free Alabama Movement. A part of it’s statement purpose reads, “And this Movement isn’t about getting ‘some outside support,’ or having our family ‘call the politicians or mayor’s office,’ ‘call the news station’ and on and on and on. The reason for this is simple: we can’t form a movement conditioned on ‘outside’ people without first unifying the ‘inside people.'” So, take a moment out of your day to hear the truth about prisons and prison life from the best experts there could possibly be: the inmates themselves. 

Free Alabama Movement Official Website– Here you can listen to the prisoners who have been forgotten, silenced and ignored. Listen to them, let their voices be heard, and spread their message further along in the outside world.

AND the Free Alabama Movement is ALL over youtube, recording their lives on the inside and exposing the hard truths to the outside.

Not only are there youtube videos being posted by FAM, but one inmate actually hosts a talk show from inside the prison, allowing for other inmates with contraband cell phones to call in and speak on his online radio station.

“The Throwaways”: New Film Spotlights Impact of Police Killings and Mass Incarceration in Upstate New York


New documetary film “The Throwaways” follows Ira McKinley, a filmmaker and ex-convcit, as he guides viewers through nearly empty city of Albany, New York while shedding light on the prison and police problems that have plagued marginalized populations for years. Ira McKinley describes his life before prison, explaining that his father was shot and killed by cops when he was just 14 and he quickly became “addicted to the life.” To support his new lifestyle, including a crack habit, he began robbing stores which ultimately landed him in prison until 2002. After he was released, he describes how hard it was for him to re-enter society as an ex convict, deeming himself a “marked” citizen. Ira McKinley bravely takes viewers into a world of racial profiling, which he refers to as “The New Jim Crow,” based on the book by Michelle Alexander, mass incarceration, and the slow death of once heavily populated, black communities.

Click here to watch the interview or read the full article.

Click here to learn more about Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Click here for “The Throwaways” documenary website.

Break the Prison to Poverty Pipeline


“The way we treat prisoners while they are locked up, after all, directly affects how they fare when they re-enter society”- Clio Chang, author of article.


Rikers Island has started to improve conditions for inmates with the  elimination of solitary confinement for youth ages 16 and 17. However, much more needs to be done to rehabilitate, not punish, America’s most vulnerable citizens. Rikers Island has an infamous reputation for being especially brutal to its inmates for minor disturbances and has most recently been brought into the spotlight for it’s lack of rehabilitation for inmates. The United States has become a strictly punitive system that makes it impossible for inmates to escape their prison history and then successfully re-enter society. Even though in theory prisons were meant to rehabilitate via educational programs, job trainings etc., it has developed into a system of punishment that lacks the resources necessary to break the prison to povery pipeline. Click here to read the full article.

You’re Old and Finally Out of Prison: What Happens Now?

“People talk about the euphoria you feel about getting out,” he said. “I didn’t feel anything like that. I was scared to death and I certainly wasn’t happy. You don’t spend three decades in an eight-by-sixteen foot cell and then come out and expect to live a normal life. You become acclimated to prison life and get institutionalized” -Lawrence White, also pictured below, a released prisoner who served 30 years.


The quote above, said by Lawrence White, accurately explains the difficulty of adjusting to freedom after having spent so many years behind bars. Many people who are released from prison do not receive the reentry help and up to date information that is needed for them to survive in a new day and age. After living in a controlled and secluded facility for a majority of their life, many inmates, such as Lawrence White mentioned above, forget how to live independently and without being told what to do. The abrupt push into the free world is only the beginning of inevitable difficulties for all inmates, but it may be even harder for those who are aged 50 and older and have spent a majority of their life in prison. Finding a home, apartment or an assisted living facility that is willing to take ex felons, a job that doesn’t require daily lifting of heavy weights (construction and foodservice jobs are the most commonly available to ex prisoners), medical care and with that the ability to pay for it via healthcare, etc., are just a few of the uphill battles for the aged inmates. For those who lose the battle, many end up homeless or in cramped, illegal living spaces, and begging on the street. Fortunately though, there are programs that are dedicated to helping aging prisoners adjust to society and ensuring they receive the proper care and resources they need. Click here to read the full article.

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