A group of 200 appeared at the Massachusetts State House today to protest mass incarceration laws and push for prison policy reform, under the umbrella movement called “JobsNotJails.” In the unusually chilly rain of late April, demonstrators held up over 46,000 signatures glued to bright orange banners that circled the government building.
The movement has three main goals in legislation. They are asking local government officials to halt funding of prison expansion, which Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA) says will cost the state $2 billion over the next seven years. With the money saved, JobsNotJails want these funds redirected toward job training programs and legislative reforms to prison laws.
“The biggest problem for these people is the lack of jobs,” said Steve O’Neil, Executive Director of EPOCA. O’Neil partnered with the Boston Worker’s Alliance a year ago to create the JobsNotJails Coalition. The movement now has support from over 100 local and national organizations.
While some at the demonstration were coming from home, others were coming from the office. Senator James B. Eldridge (D), co-chair of the Drug Law Reform Caucus, stepped into the rain to support JobsNotJails. He said the demonstration “raises the issue that we have a broken system.” Offering bipartisan support, Republican Representative Ryan Fattman offered a friendly smile alongside Eldridge.
With support from both sides of the isle, EPOCA-trained Community Organizer Lilly Williams saw today as a light at the end of a long tunnel. Charged with a drug felony 14 years ago, Williams says her Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) is still affecting her.
“The biggest difference would be made,” she said “by getting rid of the CORI law.” Williams was referring to the lifelong problems those with CORIs face such as loss of employment, public housing and volunteering opportunities. The woman who is studying Urban Studies at Worcester State University said she lost a job just last week because of the black mark on her record.
“If a person has cleaned up his life…shouldn’t he be able to go back into society?” asked Williams.
For Lynn L. (last name omitted for privacy) of Boston, the prison reform rally today was one of many she has attended. “I’m here because I care,” said Lynn.
Originally from Oakland, CA. Lynn said she was shocked by a trip she took with her high school civics class to a local court. She strained to recall the exact terminology used over 20 years ago. But she does remember the room full of homeless offenders from the street and the law officers calling it “clean up day.”
“There was something really wrong about that,” she said. With a traditional Quaker attitude of peace and nonviolence, Lynn says she has been rallying to prison reforms all her life. What she has learned from this experience is that “it isn’t just about saying no, but also saying yes.”
The mass of JobsNotJails protesters at Boston’s State House today echoed Lynn’s wisdom as they both protested legislative restraint on reducing mandatory minimums and celebrated bipartisan recognition of the need for prison reform.
In effort to spread the word to the city, protesters wrapped themselves around the State House, supporting large banners covered with over 46,000 supportive signatures. Boston Legislators, though, received the message in a different way. JobsNotJails admin passed out free copies of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to legislators.
Published nearly four years ago, the book is again gaining traction throughout the media and attracts the interest of groups like JobsNotJails. Alexander believes that in its current form, the criminal justice system is reinventing new Jim Crow laws. By focusing criminal action in underprivileged places with people of color, she believes, the system is labeling them as criminals which bleeds into discrimination of housing, employment and civil rights.
With the state-wide bipartisan support, JobsNotJails is hoping to make big strides this legislative session against mass incarceration and toward job training programs.
By Erin P. Friar
Photographs By Joseph MacDonald