Structural racism is rampant in the state’s prisons and jails, a special legislative commission found in a study released today.
The 71-page report, based on several site visits and dozens of interviews with current and former inmates and correctional staff, concluded that racism pervades policies, programs and the culture in both the state’s prisons and its county jails. Inmates of color told commissioners about unequal access to medical and mental health care and waiting longer for job placement than their white counterparts. Non-white inmates were routinely given lower-paying janitorial work instead of more desirable and higher-paying jobs in metal work and dog training, the report stated.
The Special Legislative Commission on Structural Racism in Correctional Facilities, led by state Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Marlborough) and former state Rep. Nika Elugardo (D-Boston), was charged with investigating the treatment of people of color incarcerated at state and county correctional facilities. More than 11,500 men and women are incarcerated across the state and county correctional system, whether serving sentences, awaiting trials or detained under federal programs.
From disciplinary actions to health care and educational access, people of color — along with non-English speakers and LGBTQ people — experienced worse conditions than white people, according to the report.
The report faulted the state Department of Correction for poor communication with inmates who don’t speak English. Nearly half of the 157 Latino men surveyed at one facility said they weren't getting required translation services, and more than three-quarters said they were misidentified as white.
“Eliminating racial disparities and dismantling structural racism within our correctional facilities are forefront in not only creating a more just criminal justice system for people of color within the system but to establishing a more just society in Massachusetts for all,” Eldridge said in a statement.
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About 60% of inmates in the state and county prisons are people of color, according to the most recent Department of Correction report.
Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said the commission’s report highlights important inequities across both correctional systems.
“This is really a huge step in an important direction and recognizing that there is indeed structural racism that is alive and well in the Department of Correction and in the county system,” she said.
She added that the commission’s main findings show how racism harms Black and Hispanic prisoners, specifically through a classification system that uses educational and family background to exclude them from rehabilitation programs such as education and employment. Without those services, such prisoners can’t get parole or find success in reentry, Matos said.
A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which oversees the Department of Correction, thanked the commission for its recommendations and said they were now being reviewed.
“This process identified new opportunities to strengthen data collection and reaffirmed our commitment to the core value of racial equity in our policies and day-to-day practices,” the spokesperson told GBH News. “As one of the first state organizations to undergo a special commission review on structural racism, the DOC recognizes that meaningful progress is achieved by gaining a deep understanding of how structures and systems contribute to disparate outcomes.”
The commission’s study lacks data, relying largely on interviews, but carries a recommendation for correctional agencies at the state and county levels to collect data on how people of color and different sexual orientations are treated in their facilities especially in areas of healthcare and workforce development.
The Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.
“We need to build a better way, one that truly aligns to our Corrections mission to rehabilitate and prepare people for healthy reentry into communities,” Elugardo wrote in the report. “Our prisons are an unacceptable substitute for true rehabilitation and restoration. Few enter prisons and leave restored and ready to reintegrate.”
Some correctional staff, who were also interviewed for the report, told the commission they felt discouraged from reporting racism among staff or racist incidents directed at inmates.
The DOC employs about 4,800 people across 16 prison facilities. Another 4,400 people work in the jails run by county sheriffs departments, according to the commission’s study.