The struggle to abolish bail gaining momentum in Massachusetts

(Flickr/Randy Heinitz)

(Flickr/Randy Heinitz)

This Thursday is the first settlement hearing on the videotaping of women being strip-searched at the Chicopee jail. Yes, you heard right. A jail in western Massachusetts had a policy of videotaping women being strip-searched.

It began in 2009 when the law office of Howard Friedman received a letter from Debra Baggett, a woman incarcerated at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center —more popularly known as the Chicopee Jail. In her letter, Baggett complained about the jail’s humiliating practice of videotaping women while they were being strip-searched.

People in jails and prisons write to law firms and other organizations every day. They ask for help with their individual legal cases or systemic conditions in the jails or prisons where they are held. Most never receive a reply. But this particular law firm took the step of writing back to the woman and looking into her allegations. What they found was that rather than being an isolated incident, videotaping strip searches was the jail’s policy. Whenever a woman was being sent to isolation, whether for breaking a rule, for suicide watch or to be in protective custody, she was strip-searched. The strip search was videotaped. While the staff member performing the strip search was another woman, the person holding the video camera was usually a man.

This happened 274 times to 179 women from 2008 until 2014. The firm represented Baggett and the other women in a class-action lawsuit against the jail. In August 2014, a judge ruled that the practice was unconstitutional and served no legitimate purposes. He also ruled that the women who had been subjected to this degrading, dehumanizing practice were entitled to monetary compensation. The following month, the sheriff’s office appealed.

Learning that the sheriff’s office appealed, Lois Ahrens, a Massachusetts resident and the founder and director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, filed a Public Records Information request to find out how much the sheriff’s office appeal was costing her and other taxpayers. The price tag, as of October 30, 2014, was $475,574.57. Since the appeal is still in court, that cost keeps rising.

While it seems that this jail is exceptional among the state’s 14 jails in its videotaping practice, it should be noted that in 2012, 77 percent of women in that jail — which recently finished an $18.5 million expansion to increase capacity from 120 to 184 — were incarcerated because they could not pay bail of $2,000 or less. While no one should be subjected to such degrading practices, even proponents of law and order should be horrified that those “innocent until proven guilty” are forced to endure such humiliations while awaiting their day in court. In addition, while they languish in jail, they risk losing their jobs, their homes, access to services such as drug treatment or mental health care, and custody of their children.

Not every county jail has a unit for women. In some counties, women are shipped to other jails to await trial or serve short sentences. In four counties, women who are arrested and cannot afford to post bail are sent to the Awaiting Trial Unit at MCI-Framingham, the state’s women’s prison. The unit was originally designed to hold 64 people. But, as of February 23, it was at 366 percent capacity with 234 women. This overcrowding is nothing new — last year, around the same time, the unit was at 472 percent capacity with 302 people crammed into a unit built for one-fifth that number.

The Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network, a coalition which focuses on alternatives to incarceration for women, found that the unit is consistently around 330 percent capacity. It also found that over half of the women are locked in the unit because they could not afford bails of less than $1,000. The average length of stay is 77 days. (By 2014, that average had increased to 100 days.) Sixty percent of the women jailed pre-trial eventually had their cases dismissed or continued without finding.

Last year, alarmed at the number of women held in overcrowded conditions at the Awaiting Trial Unit, a legislator introduced a bill to build a new jail specifically for women who cannot afford bail. But advocates, including Ahrens and formerly incarcerated women such as Andrea James, co-founder and director of Families for Justice as Healing, sprang into action to oppose such a measure. They formed the Pretrial Working Group, a statewide organization that has been developing and implementing pre-trial alternatives to incarceration, and pushing for the abolition of bail altogether. They did research, pointed to other places, like Maine and Washington, D.C., which use risk assessment and pre-trial services instead of money bail, to argue that it can be and has been done without jeopardizing public safety. They called the office of sponsoring representative Kay Khan to urge her not to move forward with her bill. They visited the office of Andrea Cabral, the secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, to talk about what public safety really looks like.

They also reached out to the public, speaking at churches, women’s groups and communities, both those that have and have not been hard-hit by incarceration. In an interview I did with her last year for Truthout, Andrea James recalled that when speaking in communities that have not been directly affected by mass incarceration, she draws connections between imprisonment and the issues they face. “We learned that many of them are struggling — silently — with substance abuse and addiction among their children,” she said. “We’re able to make the connection between substance abuse and incarceration. We continue to throw money away by locking up people for a public health issue. They need to learn to manage their addictions in the communities that trigger their addictions. They’ll never learn to do that in jail or prison.”

The anti-jail activists won — sort of. By the end of the legislative session, the bill had died. But incarceration and its many forms is like the many-headed hydra. In the states 2015-2016 legislative session, however, a similar bill (SD 1046) has been introduced by Sen. Karen Spilka — who had successfully pushed through the 2014 legislation to prohibit shackling pregnant women during labor, delivery and postpartum recovery.

But, having stymied the creation of a new women’s jail during the last legislative session, the Pretrial Working Group and other activists are hopeful that they can not only do so this time around, but also eliminate the practice of locking people up simply because they and their families lack the money to post bail. The Pretrial Working Group is championing two bills of their own — H1584 and SD1491 — which move away from money bail as the determining factor in pre-trial detention or freedom. Instead, the bills push for risk assessment and the creation of pre-trial services similar to practices already in Washington, D.C., Maine, Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia.

For the 179 women humiliated at Chicopee, this week’s hearings may start to provide some sense of redress. While a monetary settlement will never erase the degrading experience of being videotaped while strip-searched, it does demonstrate that, even while incarcerated, they are human beings who have human rights that should not be violated.

And this is all because Debra Baggett refused to stay silent about the injustice. “I was reading all the settlement documents and what struck me so powerfully is how brave and tenacious Debra Baggett has been,” Lois Ahrens said. “She had the presence of mind to document what was done to her and to others, find a lawyer so the lawsuit could be filed, take part in all of the court proceedings, all of the settlement talks. I hope that Debra can get the recognition she deserves so that she is not remembered for what happened to her but for standing up for herself and for all of the other women.”

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