Prisoner Advocates Oppose Pay-to-Stay Amendments in State Budget Proposals
BOSTON/State House - Outraged at the recent passage of Mass. House Budget Amendment 26, 50 local advocates for prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families held a rally and press conference opposite the State House steps on Tuesday. The amendment would allow county jails to charge prisoners $5 a day out of their canteen fund to defray some of the costs of their incarceration - in addition to other smaller fees. The Senate will be voting shortly on 3 similar amendments. If any of the amendments remain in the final state budget this summer, the proposed changes will be enacted into law in some form.
Rev. George Walters-Sleyon, director of The Center for Church and Prison, explained the advocates' position, "We object to amendment 26 because it has the possibility of increasing and perpetuating a resurgence of criminals and inmates, cultivating an institutionalized prison culture, legitimated by economic and budgetary policies, increasing crime and violence, and increasing poverty, economic and social disparity, immediately reflected in racial and ethnic demographics. Amendment 26 blocks the development of effective preventive and rehabilitative measures to reduce the inevitable consequences of recidivism. Proponents of a $5 a day fee argue that it will teach the inmates a sense of responsibility. Unfortunately, the argument that it is rehabilitative and that it teaches the inmates a sense of responsibility is a big problem, and lacks any empirical justification - since $5 is taken from the canteen account of the inmates without their consent and involuntarily.
"Furthermore, the $5 taken from the accounts does not teach the inmates any principle of financial management. Not taking into consideration that an inmates income is fixed and not within their control. The responsibility argument for pay-to-stay as a rehabilitative measure is problematic because it invariably becomes punitive with a propensity to increase crime. The possibility of inmates becoming increasingly indebted to jails cannot be easily eliminated. The immediate effect of a $5 a day fee on Massachusetts inmates and families will be reflected in the level of economic impoverishment that a $5 a day fee is poised to generate. Hardship, social marginalization for inmates may pass in the Senate. Within the prevailing concerns for CORI and its economic and social effects. Pay-to-stay will immediately effect poor families adversely in Massachusetts. It is rather the family members and friends - not the inmates - who will be responsible for paying the $5.
"If Amendment 26 is passed, the $5 fee will be collected from the inmates account - where funds deposited by family members - by friends, by girlfriends - who are also experiencing a financial burden. The passing of a $5 a day fee has the potential to economically disrupt the minority family structure - while increasing the circle of criminalization, crime, and incarceration of minorities in the prison system.
"In conclusion, Amendment 26 - $5 a day fee - lacks any strategic preventive rehabilitative measure and should therefore be opposed. We call upon you to call your Senator and say "no to Amendment 26."
Jason Lydon, pastor of the Community Church of Boston, agreed that the proposed fees are tantamount to an attack on the state's poor communities, "In the current Senate Budget there are three amendments (95, 445, and 487) that propose charging prisoners in Massachusetts for their incarceration and for their basic health necessities. None of these amendments can pass if we hope to treat prisoners with any form of dignity. Dostoyevsky wrote that, 'The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering the prisons.' If these amendments are included in the final version of the budget then our prisons will only become more inhumane and the suffering will only increase.
"After the press conference ... dozens of constituents went into the State House to tell their Senators to oppose the amendments. Sens. Creem, Chang-Diaz, Jehlen, and Rosenberg have all articulated their strong opposition to the amendments. Senate President Murray also opposes the amendments. Because there is no talk of taxes during this budget cycle there are those in the State House who are using this as an opportunity for moralistic posturing. Prisoners and other marginalized communities are being targeted, and we must not allow ourselves to be manipulated."
The lead sponsor of the House amendment, Rep. Elizabeth Poirier (R - North Attleboro) disagreed with the advocates, "The families have no responsibility to pay the fee. When the prisoner is released he is given a bill. If he remains free for two years the debt is forgiven."
The event concluded following a few other speakers, including Pastor William E. Dickerson of the Greater Love Tabernacle and Horace Small of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. The advocates said they will keep up their opposition to "pay-to-stay" proposals as the state budget debate heats up in the weeks to come.
Update: The Mass. Senate voted on Budget Amendments 95 and 487 as the above article went to press. Only Amendment 95 was passed - which calls for allowing the state prison commissioner and county sheriffs to set some fees for prisoners in county jails at their discretion, but does not mandate the fee amounts. Amendment 445 was withdrawn. Prisoner advocates have asked the public to keep up the pressure against any fees on prisoners.