I attended a Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators meeting about justice involved women last Wednesday at the State House in Boston. Erika Kates, senior research scientist at Wellesley Centers for Women, and Meghann Perry, a formerly incarcerated woman, were the two main speakers pushing alternatives for criminally-justice involved women.
Kates focused her talk on pre-trial alternatives for women. In February 2014, a huge share— 43 percent—of the women held at MCI-Framingham awaited trial, for example, according to Kates; the average length of a pre-trial stay was 100 days, versus 60-77 days in 2012. MCI-F is a Massachusetts correctional facility that houses about 600 women on a daily basis, and roughly half of the women have a bail option. People await trial when they can’t afford bail, even such amounts under $500. As they await trial, they are not allowed services, and they do not get to mingle with the general population of sentenced women at the institution.
These women need help, Kates asserted. “We’re incarcerating people with trauma, often occurring with mental illness,” she said. The women awaiting trial have high rates of substance abuse (at 60 percent, while 80 percent say they want treatment), addiction, they can be prostitutes, victims of domestic violence, and are often incarcerated for retail theft. About 50 percent have mental illness, versus 25 percent of incarcerated men.
Kates said she believes that trauma-informed care is necessary in jails and prison for women, but that the application of this notion so far is “spotty.”
As such, the Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network, of which Kates is a director, has several goals: to reduce pretrial detention; send all civil commitments to appropriate detox and treatment centers; train probation, judicial and community corrections personnel in women-specific and trauma-informed risk assessment; and engage in extensive community outreach for women’s specific resources.
When people are released on bail, they can often afford a lawyer and they have a statistically better chance for a lighter sentence. But why should those options only be available to people who can afford bail? Aren’t we only increasing the incarceration-poverty-homelessness-joblessness cycle when we take away the ability for people to have access to a life outside of jail or prison? As I often ask: What’s fair?
Meghann Perry also gave remarks last Wednesday about her long struggle with heroin and the criminal justice system. She is a former heroin addict who is now a recovery coach. Perry admitted that incarcerated people were once “the people I was afraid of most in my life.”
She credited nonprofit group Maine Pretrial Services for getting her the chance to get out of jail three weeks before her daughter was born 13 years ago. Ultimately, Perry went to drug court, which she said was challenging because of the demands drug court requires, such as staying off methadone, something hard for addicts.
Five years later, Perry relapsed again and said that in six months, she “lost everything”—her home, her husband, her possessions, and her daughter.
Perry said she was given so many chances to stay out of jail and that the last one, the opportunity to go to a live-in, faith-based substance abuse treatment facility in Maine saved her life—and the relationship she had with her daughter, with whom she got to have overnight visits at the facility.
“The missing piece was God,” she said.
Perry acknowledged that the more time she’d spent in jail or at drug court, the more “criminalized” she became.
She also poignantly noted that society’s emphasis on motherhood makes it even more stressful for incarcerated women to deal with the separation from their children. For children to be taken away not by choice, “It takes away the meaning and definition of ‘self’,” Perry said. “We’re left with almost nothing.”
We need to stop the cycle of taking moms away.
Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), who hosted Wednesday’s event along with Rep. Ellen Story (D-Amherst), noted that most women are incarcerated for “relatively minor offenses.” There are roughly 1,000 women incarcerated in Massachusetts on any given day. Each woman has, on average, 2.3 children.
Kahn said she is focused on breaking the cycle of separation mothers go through when they are incarcerated and that she wants to find ways to prepare mothers to understand what they need to do to keep connections with their families—and that these connections make a difference.
“Most of these women should not be in jail. They need supportive services, mentoring, education, job training and safe housing. System-involved women have unique needs The vast array of services and programs systems-involved women utilize are not sufficiently effective or coordinated,” Kahn said during the event’s opening remarks.
Kahn was a lead sponsor of the anti-shackling bill and now supports the Criminal Justice Commission by advocating for incarcerated women.
A new bill called an “Act Reforming Pretrial Process” seeks to implement more diversion choices; includes a risk-assessment tool to make more informed release/detention decisions; takes away the reliance on cash bail; creates a Pretrial Services Division within the Office of Probation; and requires collection and analysis on bail. It is sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Donnelly and Rep. Tom Sannicandro (D-Ashland), among others.