As we come upon Halloween, that night of frights, there’s a bill going through the Statehouse now that addresses real horrors with our prison system. As reported in Tuesday’s Daily Hampshire Gazette by writer Noor Adatia, Nia Reid-Patterson explained through tears that her 8-year-old son no longer wants to visit his father in jail due to their treatment by jail officials during visitations.
For eight years, she has been “disrespected, humiliated and treated as if [she] was a criminal” she told state lawmakers at a recent hearing for bill S.1379/H.2047. At one point, in an instance that particularly disturbed her son, she was forced to take her shirt almost all the way off as part of the screening, then was banned from visitation for 30 days when she questioned why.
“We’re trying to make our families strong and our connection strong, but they keep breaking it down,” Reid-Patterson told lawmakers at the hearing.
She also described how her husband was forced to take his sister off of a list of pre-approved visitors so that his brother could visit. The number of unique people who can visit an inmate is currently limited.
This treatment of people visiting their relatives in jail is unacceptable and is an affront to a vulnerable population. Last year, a comprehensive criminal justice bill was supposed to mandate more humane treatment of prisoners. But while the bill focused on some good topics, including bail reform, expungement, and increased use of diversionary programs, harsher visitation provisions were also enacted by the state’s Department of Corrections.
Northampton state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a co-sponsor of the prison reform bill, told Adatia that the department enacted those visitation changes and is not fully complying with the reform bill. She specifically said that the Legislature asked the Department of Corrections to do one thing and it is doing another.
The new bill would disallow limiting unique individuals who can visit an inmate, loosen clothing restrictions, allow for reasonable touch among inmates and visitors, and otherwise facilitate more visits to inmates.
It is at the top of the list of legislative priorities for advocacy organization Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, which has assembled a fact sheet of the benefits of the bill. Among them are that prisoners who receive visits have fewer instances of misconduct, visitations help mitigate the risk for children with incarcerated parents of negative social outcomes and help the prisoners themselves when they re-enter society, and that visitations are crucial to the well-being of prisoners, their families, and the people who work in prison.
At the recent hearing, Prisoners’ Legal Services representative Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney, called the current policies “nonsensical” and “contrary to the idea of rehabilitation and re-entry.”
Our prison system is based on the idea of rehabilitation and re-entry into society. As such, we need to support policies that support individuals and are shown to improve their lives and make them less likely to get incarcerated again. Punitive policies on the inmates’ family members add another layer of burdens in an already difficult situation for people.
Our longstanding criminal justice policies that dehumanize people who find themselves in jail haven’t done us any favors. We lock up more people now than ever. As I wrote in a recent editorial, while Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rate of any state in the country, it still leads much of the world, including the countries of India, Japan, Canada, and more than half of Europe.
It is a fact that bears repeating that the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prison population while only having 5 percent of the world’s population.
Legislators should support bill S.1379/H.2047. As Sabadosa pointed out to Adatia, those who are incarcerated are lawmakers’ constituents, too.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at email@example.com.