TESTIMONY OF PRISONERS’ LEGAL SERVICES OF MASSACHUSETTS IN SUPPORT OF S. 2030: “AN ACT ESTABLISHING A JAIL AND PRISON CONSTRUCTION MORATORIUM”
Thank you, Chairpersons Pacheco and Cabral, and the members of the committee, for this opportunity to speak in support of S.2030.
My name is Sarah Nawab and I am an attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, or PLS. As head of PLS’s Women’s Project, I am regularly in contact with incarcerated women throughout Massachusetts. Incarcerated women often contact PLS about the mistreatment they experience at the hands of prison staff, and these experiences would not go away in a so-called “trauma-informed prison.” Control over women’s bodies is an inherent part of incarceration and thus, as many of my colleagues here today have pointed out, there is no such thing as a “trauma-informed” prison.
In prison, women regularly undergo unclothed searches and are monitored while in the shower and while performing bodily functions. According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, or DOC, 81% of the women in their custody have open mental health cases, and many women I have spoken to have suffered through DOC’s punitive mental health watch which the US Department of Justice found violated incarcerated peoples’ constitutional rights.
Unclothed searches, monitoring during moments that should be private, and a punitive culture are all inherent and trauma-inducing elements of incarceration that will be a part of any prison DOC builds. We know from formerly incarcerated women we have heard from today that prisons and the trauma they inflict do not make our communities any safer. We need a five-year pause on the building of all prisons and jails to give communities the opportunity to find more effective ways to spend the tens of millions of dollars currently being spent on ineffective punitive systems.
There are already underutilized laws on the books that can be implemented to decarcerate safely, such as the primary caretakers law, clemency, and medical parole, and with a five-year pause on prison and jail construction, and a reallocation of resources, communities can build systems to focus on healing and addressing underlying causes of harm and violence. Massachusetts has always been a national leader when it comes to progressive change and innovation, including in the realm of criminal justice. Many of the Commonwealth’s prisons were built in the name of reform, and those same prisons are now spaces of environmental degradation, brutality, inadequate healthcare, and infectious disease outbreak. With the prison population in Massachusetts consistently declining, now is the time to pause construction and show the country what a different way forward looks like.
I hope that you will report S.2030 out favorably and I thank you for your time.
Equal Justice Works Fellow, Attorney
Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts
July 20, 2021