Prisoners Are Front And Center At Historic Legislative Hearing
“It has been proven that these life without parole sentences aren’t improving anything in our communities and continue to cause harm to families as people are incarcerated.”
The packed room at the State House on Tuesday, July 25, was not unusual. Nor was the fact that the Joint Committee on the Judiciary scheduled in one day hearings for more than 45 bills seeking to change aspects of the Massachusetts criminal legal system. But the engagement of nearly 30 incarcerated men and women testifying remotely from five different institutions was unprecedented.
Twenty women from MCI-Framingham testified a month ago on a bill filed by Rep. Joanne M. Comerford, advocating for a pause to be put on prison construction for five years (BINJ wrote about the bill in 2022, and collaborated with the Shoestring on this recent piece covering that story). That testimony was the first time in legislative history that incarcerated people appeared virtually to air their concerns.
The July 25 hearing, however, was the first time that superintendents from six prisons collaborated with lawmakers, activists, incarcerated people, and the Department of Correction (DOC) to give those behind bars the opportunity to testify live. Jesse White, an attorney and the policy director at the nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS), said of the occasion, “I think it was particularly notable that this was a cross-collaboration.”
A chief concern: ending harsh sentencing
Prisoners advocated for eight bills that could change their lives, with one bill regarding ending the sentence of life without parole (see: Changing Perception, Changing the Law) as one of their chief concerns. More than 20 spoke about An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration, filed both by Sen. Liz Miranda (and Rep. Christopher Worrell on the House side) which allows prisoners who are currently serving first-degree murder sentences to be considered for parole after 25 years of incarceration. The bill also provides for restorative justice programs behind bars for lifers who become eligible for parole “in order to develop a plan of reconciliation.”
As many clarified during the hearing, parole eligibility gives people an opportunity to serve their sentence in the community but is no guarantee of release. Currently, about 50% of those parole-eligible lifers in Mass who do see the Parole Board get positive votes. From there, most go to lower security facilities for six to 12 months before returning to life outside. They are also supervised closely by parole officers when they exit prison. As many prisoners point out, parole is not a “get out of jail free card.”
Zeno Williams, a PLS board member who has been incarcerated for 21 years, spoke of how 25 years is enough “to think about the crimes that you’ve committed.” A number of people who testified said, like Williams, that they do not minimize the life they took; some called their own crimes “horrific,” and spoke of how they lived with remorse every day.
“Leaving someone in for the rest of [one’s] life does not let them know they are worth rehabilitation,” Williams said. “It would be beneficial not only for us inside, but also for our families and society as a whole to end life without parole (LWOP).”
Several people noted how many people Massachusetts sentences to LWOP. The Bay State, with more than 1,000 serving life without parole (or 17.7% of the state prison population) now has the highest percentage of LWOP prisoners in the US, the second being Louisiana with 16.6%.
Also noted by a number of speakers: the racial disparities of those serving LWOP. Per the Washington DC advocacy group the Sentencing Project, more than two-thirds of those serving life sentences are people of color. They report that “One in 5 Black men in prison is serving a life sentence,” while “Latinx individuals comprise 16% of those serving life sentences.” And according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, “Black youth are twice as likely to receive a juvenile life without parole sentence compared to their white peers for committing the same crime.”
Derrick Washington, who has served more than 18 years of a life without parole sentence and worked behind bars on initiatives such as restoring the vote for prisoners, said it was an “honor” to speak before the committee. He said that LWOP was a “sanction of slavery and a covenant with death,” and that there was no “equity” as to how these sentences are distributed across the country. In a 2020 Boston Globe op-ed, Washington explained that “the sentence of life without parole breathes life into modern-day slavery, if you define slavery as an incarcerated person existing indefinitely as chattel property of the state absent any chance of regaining their liberty.” At the hearing, he elaborated, “We’re just asking for a sense of hope.”
Julian Green, who is serving life with parole eligibility, noted another sentence seen by many prisoners as overly harsh. He testified on An Act Regarding Joint Venture filed by Rep. Russell Holmes and Sen. Liz Miranda, which seeks to end natural life sentencing for those who are not the actual killers in homicide cases. Currently, dozens of people are incarcerated in Mass for being at the scene or assisting in the crime but not being the one who committed the murder. Green, a Boston University alumni, said that at MCI-Norfolk, he “created and is part of a coalition called We Are Joint Venture” which aims to educate the public to the injustices of that sentence. “I am not looking for a loophole,” he said, “I am looking for accountability.”
The hearing also featured many in the community, speaking virtually and in person, who had previously been incarcerated or are family members of the incarcerated.
Angelia Jefferson served more than 30 years at MCI-Framingham. Her first-degree conviction was reduced to second-degree with parole eligibility, then she earned parole last July. In a tearful testimony, she pleaded for women who are still serving LWOP sentences while she has been given a chance to live on her own with a job, supported by friends and family and empowered by what she calls “a second chance.”
“Life without parole,” Jefferson said, “is a death sentence.” (Note: This reporter taught Ms. Jefferson at MCI-Framingham in 1990).
Nia Reid-Patterson and her son Jeremiah Reid (whose father, Corey “Al Ameen” Patterson is pictured at the top of this article), supported several bills. About ending LWOP, Reid-Patterson said, “It has been proven that these life without parole sentences aren’t improving anything in our communities and continue to cause harm to families as people are incarcerated.” Jeremiah, age 12, said he had been advocating to make calls free for families “since second grade.” Corey Patterson, serving a life sentence with parole eligibility, testified to bring back furloughs, which he called “an unmatched reentry tool where returning citizens can build a foundation for themselves in the communities before they are released.”
Other bills that incarcerated men and women supported included: the House version of the aforementioned prison and jail construction moratorium proposal; a bill to establish a commission to collect data on structural racism in the DOC; a bill to establish presumptive parole, i.e. to assume a prisoner has done the work to earn parole at the date they are eligible unless the Parole Board proves otherwise; and legislation to increase educational programming for those aged 18 to 25, i.e. “emerging adults.”
In a phone interview, Jesse White explained that PLS and Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH) worked nonstop to ensure maximum participation of incarcerated people after the hearing was announced. They had less than a week to pull it off, and White said, “I was working when I wasn’t asleep.”
Many meetings occurred prepping people for testimony. “Sen. Jamie Eldridge and his staff, Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, and the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus and their staff, were critical in this process,” White said. Jasmin Borges, a bail organizer for the Massachusetts Bail Fund, which provides monies for people who cannot afford bail, said the work inside involved “building relationships and building education”—in her case, “getting women involved and empowered–-to get them to speak up and speak out in order to have their stories heard.”
Initially, 59 prisoners signed up to testify, with all participants scheduled to get three minutes to speak. But right before the hearing, the three hours allotted for incarcerated participation was cut in half, which White said was “unfortunate” since “so many people who were prepared to testify were unable to do so.” Written testimony, however, can still be submitted to the committee.
Thomas Ash, the Executive Office of Public Safety Director of Legislative Affairs, coordinated with the superintendents to make sure they could provide technology for the hearing. Represented institutions were MCI-Framingham, MCI-Norfolk, MCI-Shirley, Old Colony Correctional Center, and Souza Baranowski Correctional Center. A prisoner was also prepared to speak from Northeastern Correctional Center, also known as Concord Minimum, before time ran out.
Borges said in a phone interview, “We need to normalize incarcerated individuals having access to the political process in Massachusetts. Instead of saying we’re making history, let’s get to a place where this is commonplace.”