I am the administrator of theMassachusetts Bail Fund, and I am a prison abolitionist. That means that I am working for the closure of our prisons and jails because my scholarship and my personal experience tells me that no human being, regardless of what they have done, should be locked in a cage.
Two weeks ago, news broke that Shawn McClinton, who had been released from pre-trial detention, was arrested and charged with violent sexual assault. The crime he is reported to have committed is very similar to the crime for which he was awaiting trial and for which he has two additional convictions. Some blame the bail fund for the assault because we bailed the defendant out.
It’s an understandable knee-jerk reaction in response to the horrific crime McClinton has been accused of. But it misses the point, which is that we are working with a criminal legal system that exacerbates societal problems, rather than solving them.
Here are three things that we should be talking about now. The first would be why our state needs an organization like the bail fund, which exists solely to free poor people from pre-trial detention, in the first place? The answer is because cash bail creates a two-tiered criminal legal system that favors those who are white, wealthy, and well-connected over those who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), those whose first language is not English, and those who are poor.
The Brennan Center for Justice shows that people who are awaiting trial behind bars “are quicker to plead guilty” after experiencing first-hand the “horrific conditions” of prison life. As a result, people who cannot afford bail haveworse court outcomes than those who can afford bail. All of which perpetuates one form of “justice” for people who are white and another for BIPOC. Pointing out the racism and unfairness of this system isn’t a controversial thing to do. Attorney General Maura Healeyhas tweeted about it, and Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins campaigned on apromise to end the cash bail system.
The second issue we should be talking about is why the defendant, who re-offended just three weeks after being released from pre-trial detention, was eligible for bail in the first place. If prosecutors believe that a defendant poses a danger to the public if released on cash bail, they can petition for a58A hearing, otherwise known as a “dangerousness hearing.” Indefinite detention before someone has been found guilty of a crime is a serious matter that requires an adversarial hearing. But rather than doing this, prosecutors instead chose to manipulate the cash bail system by requesting an amount they knew the defendant would never be able to pay. As a result, by the time he was bailed out, the defendant had spent more than two years merely being warehoused behind bars waiting for resolution of his case.
The third issue is the hardest: honest dialogue about what happens behind bars. This will be a difficult conversation to have because many people still believe the fantasy that prisons provide safety. I know first-hand that incarceration doesn’t stop violence from happening. It simply changes where it happens. While struggling to survive prison as a young gay man, I wasroutinely subjected to sexual and physical violence.
Prison, or the threat of it, is a blunt force instrument. It can temporarily keep violent people off of the streets. But with only three percent of its budget allocated for rehabilitation, the Massachusetts Department of Correction does little to rehabilitate anyone, much less transform violence. The state had control of McClinton from about 2007 through 2017 when he served out a prison sentence for sexual assault. What did it do during that time to transform his life or unravel his underlying traumas? Very little, apparently, because in 2018, he was arrested and charged with yet another violent sexual assault.
Incarceration upends the lives of everyone it touches, forces prisoners into survival mode, destroys families, and leaves holes in communities while doing little, if anything, to help victims heal. The system dehumanizes not just prisoners, but also guards—who are athigh risk for depression and suicide.
Honest talk about prison necessarily requires that we also discuss how the people we trust to keep us safe are no different than those we put behind bars. Nationally, families with an adult who works as a police officer are two to four times more likely than the general populationto experience domestic violence. Stories of police abusing their badge to commit rape should be shocking and rare,but they’re not. Over half of sexual assaults reported by people detained by immigration officialsare assaulted by guards. Just this week, the former head of the Boston’s largest police unionwas arraigned on charges of child sexual assault. Last year, a guard at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee was foundguilty on multiple counts of having sex with inmates. In 2013, the city of Bostonsettled a lawsuit with a transgender woman who had been arrested on disorderly conduct charges only to be sexually harassed by multiple Boston police officers while in custody.
Violence, especially sexual violence, is endemic. Incarceration will not solve this problem. It’s no secret thatone’s zip code at birth will have a profound impact on the life you lead. That’s because extreme poverty and incarceration are intertwined and centuries of state-sanctioned racism has ensured that BIPOC are far more likely to grow up in poverty than not. It is long past the time to untangle those connections and begin the long-term work of building up our communities. We already know what works: education, violence prevention, art, and connection. Incarceration, by contrast, has never been a good investment.
Michael Cox is the administrator for the Massachusetts Bail Fund and the Director of Policy for Black and Pink Boston, which advocates for LGBTQ people who are incarcerated. He also serves on the state’s Special Commission To Study the Health and Safety of LGTBQI Prisoners.