racial equity in corrections initiative (REICI)

The Racial Equity In Corrections Initiative (REICI) is an organization-wide effort to eliminate institutional racism and its impact on Black and Brown prisoners in the day-to-day operations of Massachusetts’ prisons and jails.


The Racial Equity in Corrections Initiative (REICI) is an organization-wide initiative offered through Prisoner Legal Services, a nonprofit and anti-racist organization, that advocates equity and the humane treatment of incarcerated people in the Commonwealth. REICI’s mission is to build awareness, solutions, and leadership to combat institutional racism and the discriminatory treatment of black and brown people in day-to-day correctional operations through client and legislative advocacy; community building and education; internal efforts designed to increase staff understanding of racial equity work and an anti-racist policy; and litigation.

We strive for a healthy and prosperous society that promotes all people having equitable access to opportunity, including incarcerated populations. We recognize that to achieve our vision, we must lead in making the changes we want to see in society. Our charge is to:

  • Remain steadfast in our commitment to respect the humanity of all incarcerated individuals while acknowledging that to do so means we must be actively conscious about race and racism and take action to end racial inequities;
  • Stand in the gap to directly support Black & Brown people affected by inequity; 
  • Create space at the table for all groups to contribute and commit ourselves to involving staff, community members & families as partners in the ongoing process of developing and implementing racial equity work in the correction system; and,
  • Engage in earnest dialogue and active listening in order to better understand those who are different from us, staff and clients alike.  

why is reici important?

In January and February of 2020, correctional staff at Souza Baranowski Correctional Center engaged in wide-scale and orchestrated violence against incarcerated individuals.  The violence was racialized, with white officers specifically targeting Black and Brown people.  In a period of approximately four-six weeks, PLS received 126 complaints of use of excessive force by correctional staff and 74 complaints related to other extreme conditions of confinement. PLS staff members interviewed close to 100 incarcerated individuals about their experiences. They provided consistent reports of assaults by correctional staff with little or no provocation, typically by the Tactical Team and almost always while individuals were locked in their cells or physically restrained. They described being shot with pepper balls and taser guns, sprayed with chemical agents, bitten by dogs, being physically beaten, and being forced to kneel on the ground for hours with no relief. The officers also used racial slurs and several individuals reported having their locks cut by officers which is a highly racialized act. To date, there has been no accountability for these systematic assaults.

A 2015 New York Times investigation of nearly 60,000 disciplinary cases from state prisons found that Black and Latinx people are disciplined at higher rates than whites. They were also sent to solitary confinement more frequently and for longer durations.  The disparities were often greatest for infractions that gave discretion to officers, like disobeying a direct order. In those cases, the officer had a high degree of latitude to determine whether a rule was broken and did not need to produce physical evidence. The disparities were often smaller, according to the Times analysis, for violations that required physical evidence, like possession of contraband. 

Correctional staff is given almost total control over the disciplinary process. Corrections officers make the charges — issuing “tickets,” in prison parlance — and hearing officers, typically sergeants, lieutenants, or captains, determine guilt and decide punishment. Incarcerated individuals almost always lose. According to the Times report, in 2015, those incarcerated won only about 4 percent of the cases.  That number was significantly less when the person was Black or Brown. 

Bias in prison discipline has a ripple effect — it prevents access to jobs and to educational and therapeutic programs, diminishing a person’s chances of being paroled. And each denial is likely to mean years behind bars.

Another analysis by the Times on first-time hearings before the State Board of Parole found that over a three-year period one in four white inmates were released but fewer than one in six black inmates were.

Police brutality and the disciplinary process are only a small portion of the failed system.  Institutional racism is not the result of individualized incidents; it is the combination of regulations, policies, individual officers and administrators, and a corrections culture all working together to create a system that continues to create and worsen existing racial disparities. Instead of working to correct the results of the problems, we must examine and challenge the system. 

In Massachusetts, Blacks and Latinx make up 54% of the prison population, despite making up less than 22% of the state’s population.

REICI is a complex and ambitious undertaking, as such, PLS has a number of projects that work towards achieving the goals set forth above.

Innovations in Anti Racism to Address the Overdose Crisis

PLS has been awarded a grant from RIZE for a project entitled Innovations in Anti-Racism to Address the Overdose Crisis. This project will support our efforts to ensure equitable access to Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for Black and Brown prisoners. The project is the first legal-medical advocacy clinic of its kind and will incorporate a multi-faceted approach to challenge the Massachusetts Department of Corrections’ failure to provide prisoners of color (POC) equitable access to Substance Use Disorder (SUD) treatment.

The project is funded by a grant from RIZE Massachusetts Foundation, Inc., a foundation committed to ending the opioid epidemic and reducing its devastating impact on people, families, and communities.


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