The groundswell of support for external, independent oversight of the Massachusetts correctional system is coming from many directions. The message is loud and clear: Accountability and transparency are essential if we expect the crisis in the state and county correctional system to be defused. What happens in the cell block has ramifications for what happens on the city block.
In the current legislative session there has been widespread support for the Commission bill, HO 1559. While this bill has many merits, it needs further strengthening on several points to ensure that the Commission will not protect the status quo. We offer here our concerns and recommendations for improving the bill.
1. The bill proposes that the Commission be housed under the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) for fiscal and administration purposes. We recommend that, in the interest of transparency, the Commission be housed outside of EOPSS, perhaps under the office of the Auditor, Inspector General or the Executive Office of Public Health and Human Services.
2. The proposed bill identifies many of the entities to be represented at the table (e.g. Department of Correction, sheriffs, district attorneys, defenses attorneys, public health, mental health, etc). While these players are essential to the Commission, impacted communities need be represented, and be a majority of the members. We recommend the inclusion of representatives from ex-prisoner organizations as well as from family and friends of prisoners groups. We would also like to see representation from a human rights organization and a faith-based organization.
3. The proposed bill identifies the many areas of corrections that an oversight committee would be responsible for, such as health care including access to a doctor, mental health care, education and vocational training. To this list we would like to add prison culture and abuse. Although culture and abuse may be seen as controversial areas for a Commission to be reviewing, they are part of the cause of the crisis the system is now facing. Examples of cultural issues include attitudes of correction staff, nepotism, educational qualifications and training practices.
4. The language in the current bill needs to state clearly that the Commission has responsibility for oversight of the county as well as the state correctional system. It is currently vague.
5. The current bill gives the Commission no power to enforce recommendations. Mechanisms to ensure enforcement need to be added.
We are aware that critics of the proposed bill expect no real change to come from a Commission comprised of members who are currently part of the current system. Such criticism serves as an important warning. It will be important for prisoner advocates and activists to hold the Commission accountable for its responsibilities. In some other states, such as Pennsylvania, concerned citizens have formed their own human rights entities to monitor the state’s correctional system. Massachusetts could benefit from a people’s oversight entity, too. Nonetheless, we think that a strengthened proposal for a legislatively endorsed Correction Commission could go a long way to reducing the current crisis and “decarcerating” our state.
Nancy Ahmadifar and Mel King