Boston activists demand jobs, not jails

By MARILYN LAVIN

— BOSTON — Long overdue, the unfinished civil rights movement of the last century is being reborn. Unlike the earlier focus on voting and southern segregation, the nascent movement is taking to the streets to protest the “new” Jim Crow of mass incarceration and police misconduct expressed in the “Stop and Frisk” laws and the “War on Drugs.”

As we witness the dismantling of many of the gains of the old civil rights movement—like affirmative action, voting protections, desegregation of schools, and social safety nets—Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” has been a galvanizing factor in exposing the mass incarceration of Black and Latino youth as a systemic racist phenomenon of the past 40 years, and not due to individual failure.

Well over 1000 people from all over Massachusetts rallied on a rainy and cold day on Boston Common on Saturday, April 26, calling for “Jobs Not Jails.” The rally was organized by the new grassroots Coalition for Jobs not Jails of over 100 organizations, including prison reform groups, unions, youth organizations, faith groups, and peace and justice groups. The coalition was initiated by EPOCA (Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement), along with Families for Justice as Healing and the Boston Workers Alliance.

The trends and demographics in Massachusetts are in keeping with nationwide statistics. The prison population has risen three-fold since the 1980s. While almost 84% of the population is white, whites make up only 44% of prisoners. The state’s prisons are well over capacity, primarily because of strict mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders. Once out of prison, which offers very little in treatment and rehabilitation programs, it is almost impossible to find decent paying jobs. Their criminal records negatively impact and follow ex-prisoners for life, contributing to a high recidivism rate of 70%.

Massachusetts spent 1.28 billion on prisons, probation, and parole in fiscal year 2013 (greater than the amount spent on higher education). With plans for 10,000 new prison units by 2023, at the cost of $2 billion, reform and justice organizations decided that only joint actions by all would give them the power needed to turn this around.

Under tents and umbrellas, rally attendees listened to moving stories from ex-prisoners and recovering substance abusers and their families describing their hardships and a system that “is set up for failure.” “It’s all about money,” said a member of Friends and Relations of Prisoners, as she listed the many things that victims of the “criminal justice” system are forced to pay for that keep them in poverty. Known as “collateral sanctions,” there are expensive charges for phone calls from prison, and fees for probation, parole, and court costs.

Former City Councilor and ex-prisoner Chuck Turner spoke of the growth of the criminal prison-industrial complex as an immensely profitable product of capitalism. “If we want peace, justice, and equity,” he said, “we have to stand up and take action.”

The coalition is urging an end to prison expansion and instead using the billions saved to create jobs that pay living wages and programs to educate, treat, and rehabilitate offenders, 80% of whom are nonviolent substance abusers and/or mentally ill. They also advocate for repeal of punitive and unjust treatment of current and ex-prisoners, and a raise in the minimum wage for all.

When the state budget and bills related to criminal justice are debated, on April 30, Jobs Not Jails supporters are urged to converge on the Massachusetts Statehouse to wrap it with banners filled with over 30,000 petition signatures to demonstrate community support for real justice, not business as usual. The organizers assured people that this action was only the beginning of a movement for change.

Pastor Paul Robeson Ford from the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, said, “This is the defining moral issue of our time.” He questioned why criminals exist when people are not born that way and concluded that “a broken society makes broken people.” He summarized the sentiments of the crowd with a fitting chant, “Lift them up; don’t lock them up!”

Photo: Jobs Not Jails rally in Boston, April 26, 2014. From bostonmagazine.com