Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts Statement on the 2021-2022 Legislative Session Budget
On Monday, July 18th, the Massachusetts legislature voted on the state’s budget, which was passed by both the House and Senate. The budget currently sits before Governor Baker for his final approval. There are multiple items in this year’s budget that will improve the lives of incarcerated people and their families in Massachusetts. PLS is grateful for the policymakers who advocated for these changes and the organizations, coalitions, and individuals who have been fighting for this change. Many of these victories are the result of years of dedicated organizing and advocacy and are promising steps on the road to abolishing all harms of the carceral system.
Elimination of Probation and Parole Fees
Governor Baker’s decision to forward the elimination of probation and parole fees helps alleviate an unnecessary financial burden on formerly incarcerated people who are reentering society. These fees impact tens of thousands of people, disproportionately people of color, in Massachusetts annually and are essentially a regressive tax imposed under the guise of public safety. We praise this decision and hope it is the first reform of many improving the state’s broken parole system.
No Cost Calls
PLS is grateful for Senator Creem, Representative Tyler, and all the legislators who worked to eliminate charges for phone calls and other communications for incarcerated people. Sheriffs and the Department of Correction (DOC) are required by the budget language to maximize access to telephones, and if they do as required, incarcerated people will be able to strengthen their family and community connections. This will alleviate a tremendous financial burden for disproportionately impoverished individuals and families. It has also been shown that increased contact with family promotes successful reentry.
PLS will advocate that the DOC and the Sheriffs are required to expeditiously and sufficiently implement changes, must improve upon currently available access to telephones, and may not add further obstacles to communications for incarcerated people. The African American Coalition Committee at MCI-Norfolk has called for providing universal access to tablets and allowing unlimited telephone calls to be made via the tablets from 6:00 am to 11:30 pm. This is a reasonable and readily available mechanism that would help fulfill the legal mandate to maximize communication access and ensure the legislative intention to strengthen community connections is fulfilled. PLS strongly supports this call, and we also call on the DOC and the Sheriffs to implement telephone access through tablets as soon as possible.
Senator Creem’s provision ending commissions on commissary items, limiting prisons and jail commissary pricing to 3% above their cost, and requiring gender-affirming and culturally appropriate items is a major improvement for the physical and financial well-being of incarcerated people. PLS’ Racial Equity in Corrections Initiative (REICI) previously identified the lack of culturally appropriate commissary items as a major issue among our clients. Commissaries provide goods necessary for daily living for prisoners and we praise reforms that make these goods more accessible and affordable.
The inclusion of a COVID-19 related decarceration mandate in the DOC budget line item, led by Senator Chang-Diaz, is a major victory for every incarcerated person in the commonwealth. With over a million deaths in the United States alone, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented an unprecedented challenge to public health. Considering that incarcerated people are 5.5 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than the general population, incarcerated people have been devastated by this virus for years. Sadly, this reflects the poor health outcomes and unique vulnerabilities experienced by people in our prisons and jails. We applaud the legislature’s decision to increase the use of alternatives to incarceration to appropriately balance public safety needs against the imminent public health threat of COVID-19, and we call on the DOC to finally implement this mandate, which has been on the books since FY 2020.
In addition to the legislators mentioned in the letter above, we’d like to thank Senate President Spilka, Speaker of the House Mariano, the chairs of the Ways and Means committee, Senator Rodrigues and Representative Michlewitz, and the members of the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. We look forward to continuing our collaboration with the legislature to improve the lives of incarcerated people and their families. Each of these budget items represents material improvements for some of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable communities. Thank you again to the countless people who made these victories possible.