LEADERS OF THE Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and prisoners’ advocates at a hearing Tuesday slammed the outgoing administration of Gov. Charlie Baker for failing to properly implement the 2018 criminal justice reform law and failing to answer questions about implementation.
The committee requested detailed information from Baker officials and county sheriffs about how they are implementing the landmark reform bill. House Judiciary Committee chair Michael Day said the sheriffs provided “voluminous documents,” and the Baker administration gave a 14-page response, with links to sources. “The written response in many instances ignored certain inquiries altogether,” Day said. “The administration flatly refused to appear at any time over the next two days.”
Day called the administration’s approach “incredible to me and a disservice to our government.”
Secretary of Public Safety and Security Terrence Reidy wrote in his response to Day and Senate Judiciary chair Jamie Eldridge, “Although I respectfully decline your invitation to testify before the Joint Committee, I hope my written response below to your letter will confirm our shared commitment to public safety and to the implementation of the reforms to criminal justice contained in the [Criminal Justice Reform Act].”
His letter detailed a number of initiatives related to programming and education; data collection and reporting; processing of rape kits; correctional officer mental health and training; and inmate housing, among other areas.
The hearing was held in the waning days of Baker’s administration, with Gov.-elect Maura Healey poised to take over in January. Day said he hopes that given the timing, “the hearings will proactively identify the work remaining in our effort to modernize our corrections system for the incoming governor and her team.”
Tuesday’s hearing was focused on data collection and inmate welfare, while a second hearing on Wednesday is scheduled to discuss correctional officer welfare and Bridgewater State Hospital. The nearly four-hour hearing touched on a wide range of critiques about prisoner treatment.
The only person to testify on data collection was Ben Forman, research director at MassINC, the think tank which shares a parent company with CommonWealth. Forman sits on a committee that is overseeing efforts to create a cross-tracking system, through which data from every agency in the criminal justice system would be connected. Forman said the system mandated by the 2018 reform bill has two goals: being able to track an individual throughout the criminal justice system and making data publicly available. Watching and participating in the work of the committee, Forman said, “I’ve been frustrated the entire time because it hasn’t mapped out what needs to be done, who’s going to do it, how much it’s going to cost, and when it’s going to happen.”
Day said the Baker administration offered some details in their written response, including a road map in the form of a complicated flow chart, but the complexity of the project is one reason the committee wanted administration officials present for a discussion. Day said that could have provided more insight into what the challenges are, whether they are financial, ideological, or a matter of “herding cats.”
Much of the discussion revolved around problems with how the state is treating inmates, in areas from medical parole to solitary confinement to educational programming.
For example, Eldridge expressed frustration that the Department of Correction has 3,170 inmates on a waiting list for educational programs – and only 843 people enrolled in programs. He said the Legislature has fully funded the department and wondered why the department has not added more educational programs.
Lizz Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, a prisoners’ rights group that has often clashed with the Baker administration, said Baker officials’ refusal to testify before the committee “is illustrative of a repetitive unwillingness to comply with legal mandates.” “Such behavior and violations persist precisely because there has been insufficient accountability,” Matos said.
Matos pointed to provisions in the criminal justice reform bill that gave additional rights to prisoners held in solitary confinement. Despite that, she said, some prisoners still remain in their cells with only five hours outside their cell each week. Required in-person reviews for people in restrictive housing are not occurring.
A formerly incarcerated man, Rob Aldrich, said the Department of Correction renamed solitary confinement units and made only minor changes to get around the law. He said he personally was in a solitary unit, called ten block, after the law change. “It’s still ten block. You just changed the name to bamboozle people into believing they’ve done something,” Aldrich said.
Rebecca Jacobstein, director of strategic litigation for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said the department reclassified some former solitary housing units as secure treatment units for people with mental health issues. But correctional officers there received no special training in mental illness. “The DOC changes the nomenclature but not the experience,” Jacobstein said. “By design these units are demeaning and dehumanizing.”
Prisoners’ rights advocates have long complained about the Department of Correction’s lack of compliance with a new medical parole law, which has paroled just 69 prisoners as of the department’s fiscal 2022 annual report. Mara Voukydis, director of the parole advocacy unit at CPCS, said the department has defined the medical parole law in an “elastic way” that “uses outsized discretion in narrowing some elements and stretching others.” For example, she said the department narrowed the definition of who is eligible to exclude people with cognitive conditions. Officials expanded definitions of who poses a risk by looking at decades-old offenses and disciplinary histories.
Advocates also raised a potpourri of other issues. One was the lack of special education offered to individuals ages 18 to 21 with special education needs who are incarcerated. State law requires that students with individualized education plans get services until age 22 or until they graduate high school.
Joshua Dankoff, director of strategic initiatives for the advocacy group Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said more than half of young people in the juvenile justice system have individualized education plans, but the Department of Correction reported that, as of 2021, only two prisoners received special education services in two-and-a-half years. There were 16 individuals getting special education services over two years across the county jails.
Dankoff said it is clear prison systems are not providing educational services to young people with disabilities. “The carceral instinct and bureaucratic complexity allow for education rights to be disregarded with no one being accountable,” Dankoff said.
Marlies Spanjaard, director of education advocacy for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, mentioned cases of specific young people she worked with who had individualized education plans but were not getting any education. “These young prisoners have a state and federal right to receive their educational services, yet we’re failing them,” she said.
On another topic, Jennifer Levi, senior director of transgender and queer rights for GLAD, a GLBTQ legal defenders’ group, said she knows of transgender men placed in women’s facilities and transgender women in men’s facilities, where correctional officers refused to use their appropriate names and pronouns. “That alone creates tremendous challenges, puts people at risk of safety, harassment, as well as seriously deteriorating their mental health,” Levi said.