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People Not Prisons: The Fight to Abolish Inhumane Incarceration

On Feb. 10 at 6 p.m. Wheaton College hosted speaker Sashi James, an organizer for The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. James spoke about why we need a Jail and Prison Construction Moratorium passed and how we can shift resources to create thriving communities where everyone has access to housing, treatment, health care, education, and economic development. James’ mother, Andrea, created this organization to focus on the incarceration of women and girls and the harm done when women are separated from their families. Sashi James is a daughter of two incarcerated parents and she made sure to note that “[she knows] that [her] daughter will never end up in prison or jail.”

James’ presentation primarily focused on the council’s work establishing mutual aid programs in the Boston area and previous organizing they have done to help those who are incarcerated. One of these accomplishments was the endorsement of a participatory defense model, which is a community organizing model for people facing legal charges. This model is based on families and communities working to impact the outcomes of cases and transform the landscape of power in the court system. With this participatory defense model, they have successfully saved a million years of incarceration thus far. Another accomplishment was the launching of a basic income guaranteed program last year, giving $500 to five incarcerated women. This year, they gave $500 a month to over 20 women – a large improvement.

Additionally, they purchased three hydroponic farms, to give out free vegetables to families who have or have had incarcerated members. The Council even has done work to ensure that there are voter tables in prison since people who are not convicted of a violent charge can still vote. Not having voting tables in prisons contributes to major voter suppression of black and brown individuals. 

The presentation concluded with a note of the council’s work trying to get a bill passed through the Massachusetts Legislature that would establish a 5-year moratorium on jail and prison construction and expansion. James noted that Massachusetts is currently trying to spend $50 million to construct a new women’s prison in Chicopee. Presently, Massachusetts has a few women’s prisons, with the largest located in Framingham that contains 166 people. James noted that Massachusetts has one of the highest rates of women serving life sentences in the country and that “women are going to prisons and never coming home.”

James notes that the council wants to see more clemency granted, which is the process by which a governor or other administrator grants a pardon to an incarcerated person. Advocates have been lobbying Governor Charlie Baker to grant more pardons, but he has only granted 2 in his entire career. James called the over-imprisoning of people “[yet] another cycle of trauma in our community.”