They’re basically punishing people for being in poverty

New carceral structures are coming at the expense of the things people actually need to stay safe

They’re basically punishing people for being in poverty
Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

As was mentioned in here a few days ago the ACLU of Massachusetts recently brought suit against the city of Boston for the way they have been handling the forced displacement of unhoused people — largely suffering from substance misuse disorders — in an area of the city known as Mass. and Cass.

“In spite of City officials’ suggestions that housing would be provided, the plaintiffs and others were driven out — under threat of arrest — with no viable housing options. Much of their personal property was summarily destroyed, leaving them without access to clothing and even vital papers such as their identification,” the lawsuit explains.

If you’re not up to speed on the story in general Miles Howard recently wrote for Hell World on the disconnect between progressive Boston’s supposed humanitarian response to the encampments and the actual punitive actions they’re taking against the unhoused here while Bill Shaner covered a similarly cruel upheaval in an encampment in Worcester here.

The thing about the unhoused is that they don’t just disappear into thin air when you kick them out of where they’ve been living — as much as many people would probably wish they would. They have to either end up in housing — which there is a glaring lack of — or go you know where. Who knows though maybe this time arresting our way out of a problem might finally work. Worth trying again right?

In the meantime and very predictably many of the people who have been uprooted and had their belongings destroyed are being picked off by the Boston Police and sent not into treatment or housing but into the maw of the carceral system.

Among the groups that have been focusing on what happens to these people once they’re forced off the streets is one called Court Watch Massachusetts whose volunteers of late have been witnessing the proceedings inside of a sort of ad hoc court set up inside a nearby prison. This thread of theirs below about one woman in particular being given cash bail that she could obviously not pay — for the alleged crime of taking a pair of shoes from a hospital when she was discharged — is particularly blood boiling.

Read that bit from the judge again. “For all I know, bail fund will post her bail tonight.” Absolutely dripping with irritation that the woman might not spend time in jail before being convicted of anything.

The woman’s bail was later reduce to $25 which she could also not pay.

If you’d like to contribute to the Massachusetts Bail Fund you can do so here.

I’ve been paying attention to Court Watch for a year or two now and wanted to know more about what they do so I called up one of their volunteers to talk about what’s going on with the people being processed through the courts after being kicked off the street as well as their broader abolition goals in general. Since they are a collective who try not to elevate any individual member they asked not to use their name.

Also while we’re on the subject please be sure to read this piece by my pal Brendan Little about why people might be reluctant to leave street communities like this.

​​With recent discussions about Mass. and Cass, people have asked why someone would want to sleep in a tent if there is an open shelter bed a block away. I understand why — finding community in a place that many people find deplorable resonates with me. Many tragic things happen at Mass. and Cass, but there are also countless acts of kindness, generosity, and grace. Both from the people on the street, and the staff that serves them. People share food and clothing. They reverse their peers’ overdoses. They protect their friends from violence. They work jobs so their partners no longer have to do sex work. They create art. Additionally, the city and nonprofit professionals who serve people at Mass. and Cass are sometimes the only ones left who engage them without judgment. These staff offer attention and support with no strings attached. Unconditional care is a rare treasure for a community that often has strained, or nonexistent, ties with family and friends.

I’ve seen many people struggle once they get housed or get into recovery because they miss the professionals who served them when they were experiencing homelessness. For individuals at Mass. and Cass, sometimes “progress” can look like moving on from the only people in your life who care about you. If that’s what progress looks like, who would want it? This dilemma is crucial to understand because if we can harness the healthy social bonds that exist at Mass. and Cass, we can better improve our shelter, housing, and treatment systems to mirror these strengths. But it all starts by rejecting stigma and recognizing the depth of humanity that exists there.

Ok here’s me and Court Watch talking. Enjoy (?)

Photo By Jim Michaud/ Boston Herald

Thank you for all the work that you all do. Uh, what is it exactly that you do though?

Court Watch was started originally as a project by the Massachusetts Bail Fund and Families for Justice as Healing, originally in connection with a campaign led by the ACLU of Massachusetts called the What a Difference a DA Makes campaign. It originally ran in five counties for five months in the summer of 2018, when there were contested DA elections for the first time in a long time in the Commonwealth, to try to raise awareness about the business of our courts. The project pivoted in early 2019 to the First 100 Days campaign, looking at prosecutions in Suffolk County under the new DA Rachel Rollins, who had run on a couple of significant campaign pledges that were specific to arraignment court, including a pledge to create a presumption of release without conditions and declining to seek cash bail in most cases. Also a pledge to create a presumption of declination, meaning dismissing prior to or at arraignment fifteen low level charges. Things like shoplifting, trespassing, misdemeanor larceny, drug possession, possession with intent to distribute, there’s a whole list.

These were all things the pro-police media were all crying about when she came in right? That Rollins was going to spell the end of society.

That’s right. So part of our project was to show that, one, that wasn’t really happening in a new way in court. A lot of those cases were still proceeding past arraignment, and also to the extent that it was happening it was a continuation of the [prior DA Dan Conley] administration. So already the low level charges, things like driving with a suspended license, or driving without insurance, just true crimes of poverty that nevertheless have criminal sanctions in Massachusetts, were already being handled that way. Where somebody could come in within 90 days with proof they had restored their license and the judge would dismiss the case. So this wasn’t true transformative change based on what we were observing in court.

Also the Rollins campaign promises were not truly being carried out at the scale that I think some had anticipated. For one thing the administration didn’t release its policy memo turning the campaign rhetoric into official office policy until March 25 2019, many weeks into our observations, where we were seeing gross racial disparities in how things were playing out in courts. We were looking at the stories of what was happening to people and trying to change the narrative of what criminal prosecution is. People who report on local news crime beats highlight the most salacious cases that are totally anomalous to what’s happening in the low level trial courts. Something like 30% of criminal case loads in the Commonwealth are these low level driving offenses.

So we were trying to tell the story about how criminal courts actually function.

People who just watch the evening news, and are scared all the time, I don’t think a lot of them understand, unless this happens to someone that they know, that these petty little things, they can end up snowballing very easily and destroying someone’s life.

That’s right. The two significant things we were trying to illustrate with this project is that this is the bulk of our criminal courts. These petty little things. There’s a public data dashboard that Massachusetts trial court produces where you can see the count of how many of each charge there is pertaining to each statutory section. You can see most of what’s happening in courts is low level stuff.

We’re also concerned that the way that things get charged — and that’s another human element of this — make things sound way more serious than what really happened. Splashing a glass of cold water at somebody can be charged as assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Just hearing the charge is not enough to know what’s happening in court. And you can’t get that information from reading a docket. That’s why we have volunteers in solidarity with people being prosecuted in court every day watching what is happening.

Are you all lawyers?

Most of us are not lawyers. The original volunteer base was in part people who had come out to recruitment events. I want to be clear this is explicitly an abolitionist project that recognizes that the criminal punishment system is a system of social and racial control. Part of the project and the volunteer training was inviting people to learn what that means and how that functions in real time…

How did things play out under Rollins in your estimation? Did things get better eventually, or is it more of the status quo after making a lot of promises?

There are trend lines where certain things have improved slightly is how I would say it. Also there have been other things that have gotten worse. For example, in the summer of 2020, when there was more pronounced gun violence. This was exacerbated in part by the pandemic when people were disconnected from existing social support, schools weren’t happening and youth programs weren’t happening, and economic precarity was so much more pronounced for people. Those are reasons why the crime rate might go up. So the DA’s office started taking the approach that anyone that was found with a gun in their possession that was not registered, their office would automatically move for pre-trial detention without the possibility of release. No bail. That dramatically impacted black and brown people. Most of those guns come from pretextual stops. Where cops are pulling someone over for running a stop sign or a broken tail light or dark tinted windows or an abrupt turn. The DA’s office has in appellate documents made some wishy washy statements about how pretextual stops don’t align with the values of the Commonwealth and the DA’s office, and yet it’s still prosecuting those cases, holding people without bail, indicting those cases. I think the messaging around what the office has actually done is a lot more complicated when you dig into the data and talk to people who are being prosecuted by that office.

There was a study done by folks at NYU looking at data from the DA’s office, Conly data, but also two years of Rollins data, to see to what extent low level charges were being declined or dismissed at or after arraignment, and even in the Rolins era many are not being dismissed prior to arraignment, which, from the initial campaign rhetoric, was promised. Many are continuing as criminal cases, but only 25% of them end up with a conviction. So there’s a big question about what everyone’s doing with these cases and whether the best approach would be instead to dismiss all of them prior to arraignment and get the criminalization out of people’s lives, which makes all of the economic and health approaches to this much harder.

They’re basically punishing people for being in poverty. Something that a middle or upper middle class person, a $500 fine for this or that, or cash bail, that they might be able to pay, for a lot of people it’s an insurmountable thing, right? And leads to this endless cycle.

That’s right.

So what is going on with these ad hoc courts right now regarding Mass. and Cass?

What’s been reported publicly by Tori Bedford for WGBH is that even though it has been pitched by mayor Kim Janey as acting in parallel with her encampment sweeps, it’s technically a separate process that’s been started by the trial court. So there was a standing order that was issued by the Massachusetts trial court to create this “community response session,” which is the Orwellian title they’ve given this court, which they’ve built inside the Suffolk County House of Correction. Booking and detention and meeting with counsel and court are all happening in this one area of a converted ICE jail, where the Sheriff had held people in ICE detention until the fall of 2019. It’s not truly a public court. There’s nothing about it that’s a public court...

These are people who have been picked up off the street with addiction issues dealing with homelessness?

Yes. And it’s our understanding that the Boston Police Department made a list of 80-135 people, different numbers have been reported, who were known to frequent the area or live in the encampment that had outstanding warrants. I just want you to know there are something like 400,000 outstanding warrants in the Commonwealth. So the Boston Police made a specific list to target specific people because they are poor and unhoused and have an illness, and have been picking them off one by one from the list of warrants based on people that they recognize, so far as we know. There’s been no publicly stated explanation for why they are choosing the people they are choosing except for a general sense that they are people on this list.

Do they still seem to think they can arrest their way out of this addiction problem? It seems so common sense to me that you do not help someone suffering by putting them in jail. You’re making their life ten times worse. So why do the mayor and the police insist on this charade in your opinion?

I think the stated purpose is to get people into treatment. I might use the word coerce into treatment. But, one, that’s not what’s actually happening. The first week of the jail court has proven it to be a farce. Multiple people were sent to jail to detox overnight without medication in potentially lethal situations. I know for a fact that one of the people was in alcohol withdrawal, which without monitoring can be lethal. And by the way, I’m sorry to not have mentioned yet, four people died in the Suffolk County House of Correction and/or Nashua Street Jail in Sheriff Tompkins' custody in July and September of this year. That’s including two that died within hours of being admitted to that jail, one of whom was Edward "Jay" Isberg, Jr., who was held on a $200 bail, and had recently been living in a shelter. His mother was interviewed in the Boston Globe and said he had recently had a recurrence of use with a substance use disorder and was struggling and living around the Mass. and Cass. area. He died for unexplained reasons, there’s still an ongoing investigation, within two hours of being admitted to the jail on that cash bail in the medical unit.

Another woman, Ayesha Johnson, who was 35 years old, a mother of two, died in the jail in a holding area the same day. She had not been admitted to the jail’s custody. She was there in the jail pending transport to a treatment facility elsewhere. She had been civilly committed that morning upon petition by her family for an alcohol use disorder. It seems apparent, although an investigation is ongoing, that she died of alcohol withdrawal from being unmonitored in the Sheriff’s facility.

It’s so heartbreaking. It’s also such a tough thing for a family too though. We all have family members who suffer badly from addiction, and it’s like, what can you do? You don’t want to call the police. You don’t want to have them committed. But what other options do a desperate family have?

That’s right. I think part of the problem with this is it’s an opportunity cost. All of the resources and funding that are going into building out new carceral structures are coming at the expense of the things people actually need to stay safe and healthy and alive: More voluntary treatment options. Having treatment in every community that people can access that is culturally empathetic care. Trying to do work to destigmatize. Making sure people can use in a way where they’ll stay safe and alive. We should be piloting safe consumption sites right now in Massachusetts.

Part of the issue with how people cycle is that many people who have lived at Mass. and Cass. for months will have had lots of recurrent experiences trying to enter treatment. I know people who have lived down there personally who would get tired of living on the street and not feel safe there and go to the ER and check in, and from there go to an Acute Treatment detox, then sometimes get into a CSS, which is a slightly longer term placement for treatment. But then at that point the only option available for a long term residential treatment has a six month waiting list. So there are shortfalls for what treatments are available for people who are actively seeking it. Also there can be other barriers. If people have outstanding warrants, sometimes programs won’t take them. Part of the issue is the criminalization interrupts people’s access to treatment that might actually help by giving them more options before things are at a crisis point.

The ostensible idea behind this “cleaning up” Mass. and Cass. is to get people help, but what is actually happening is someone gets caught up, they get brought in, they maybe have some bullshit thing that they did, shoplifting or whatever…

Or that they’re alleged to have done. We’re always trying to stand on the possibility that people are innocent. Which is totally possible in these kinds of cases.

For sure. My point is this all seems almost like a bait and switch. Ok, we’re gonna help you, come on in. Then, oh, wait a minute, you allegedly did something wrong, now you’re going to jail. Is it any wonder why people are afraid to engage with the system in the first place?

And it’s so counterproductive in so many ways. This happened to a number of people last week, but one woman was pulled out of a methadone line while she was waiting for her daily dose of methadone.

Isn’t there a hearing today on section 35, involuntarily committing people?

There is a legislative hearing on two pending bills, a House version and Senate version, to prevent people who are sectioned under section 35 from being sent to a prison or jail setting to receive their treatment.

And that’s a good thing right?

I think that’s the bare minimum that should happen in respect to section 35. The data all show that, regardless of the treatment setting, involuntary commitment creates a risk of heightened overdose death. And death from any cause. That’s what the section 35 committee concluded. But at the very least people should not be sent to jails and prison under the guise of treatment.

I want to be clear though that this change was made in the law for women in 2016. After the ACLU and Prisoners Legal Services filed suit the legislature and the governor adopted this change. However, as we just discussed, Ayesha Johnson was sectioned and still held in a jail pending transport by the Sheriff’s Department to her treatment bed. So even this change will still potentially create gaps where people are put in carceral facilities because the sheriffs run transport for the courts.

Another thing that’s happening as far as I understand regarding Mass. and Cass. is that a lot of people who are being swept up are being given stay away orders from the area. Isn’t that the area where most of the clinics and Boston Medical services also are? Does this effectively keep them away from help?

In the cases where stay away orders have been imposed, and the person is already admitted to seeing a methadone clinic every day, the judge has created a carveout in the order that says you are allowed to be here from x time to x time during the day to be able to get your methadone. But the person has to have proof of that on their person, and two, they may need to see other service providers. This was a big fight in one of the cases last Wednesday, where attorney Tim Brown advocated on behalf of his client, saying even that carveout, from 6 am to noon, was not enough because she also works with outreach workers at Pine Street who have set her up for transitional housing and have put her on a list for permanent housing. She also received healthcare from the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless program. She may need to have appointments outside of that 6-12 winding depending on what the schedule is that day…

Why does this all seem to be coming to a head right now. This isn’t a new problem. Was it the mayoral race? Why is the Boston Globe taking such an interest now?

This is all conjecture, but in part I think the pressure cooker of business interests in the area have gotten louder. To be clear, the person that started the drum beat on this from the Globe was Shirley Leung, who is a business columnist. I think the New Market Business Association, and the efforts to turn that area into a business improvement district, are highly relevant to why this is happening now. I think there also is some genuine humanitarian concern about the weather changing and the conditions that people are going to endure in the winter. I think there are many individual people who work for the Boston Health Commission who are in it to try to help people, I want to be clear. But as a matter of city policy, the approach they have taken is not a public health approach, no matter what they call it.

I haven’t been watching the local TV news here, but I saw a story yesterday from San Francisco, and they’re having similar problems, like a lot of cities are. It was about people complaining about tents on the street, with a one second mention that the apartments go for a million dollars. Then they interviewed all the people in the million dollar apartments about how gross it is to have to look at poor people on drugs. We have that same sort of thing in ostensibly progressive Boston and Massachusetts. The way that this is largely covered is from the perspective of a “normal” person, a taxpayer.

That’s right. I think that the perspectives of unhoused people are not usually centered and elevated to the same extent.

But one thing that is important that isn’t always true in other places but is true in Boston is that there are complicated equity issues around where this encampment is in terms of it being at the corners of largely black and brown neighborhoods in Roxbury. It is true that kids who are playing on sports teams in Roxbury in Clifford Park find discarded syringes on their playing field, in a way that doesn’t happen in wealthier white communities. But the solution that has been called for is to have more needle exchanges and syringe disposals that are open 24 hours. When the needle exchange closes at 5 pm people have nowhere to go. We can in reality deal with the fact that there are complex racial justice issues in this, and also call for the important housing-first and public health solutions that would be long term remedies for the fact that people don’t have housing.

It’s hard for me to stake out the right position here in some ways. I have sympathy for the families living in the neighborhood, you don’t want your children playing around discarded needles and things like that. I feel some sympathy for businesses around there. But that point of view is so over-represented.

It is. And it’s also that the people who have that point of view are calling for totally wrongheaded solutions. I think some of the NIMBY politics do not present themselves when the solutions being offered are punishment and incarceration. The jail is in the same community. It’s right there. And people don’t have a problem with people being sent to that jail, even if Sheriff Tompkins is going to rebrand it as a treatment facility, which he does not have state authorization to do to be clear. When a hotel a few blocks away was being considered as a transitional low threshold housing program by Victory Programs a few months ago, the local community came up in arms to shut down that project. A project that would have gotten people from tents into transitional housing. It’s interesting, and I think illustrative, that those dynamics of people not wanting certain things in their neighborhood do not come up when the solution is jail.

I think what I’m trying to say is, this is something that needs to be fixed, I don’t think it’s a great idea to have people living in tents on the street, it’s just that the answer definitely isn’t punishment.

There was a coalition document that came out last week proposing an actual public health and human rights response. It says the immediate action steps are to ramp up conditional housing and shelter options for people right now. That means contracts with hotels and motels and other city owned vacant buildings. Create structures right now where people can be safe and indoors. Then offer that to people as an option. Give them real options they can consider. And don’t force them out under threat of prosecution. This is going to take a little bit of time to the extent there’s going to need to be construction in converting an old abandoned school or warehouse in that industrial area of Mass. and Cass. In the meantime meet people’s basic needs in the encampments. That means provide trash removal and trash receptacles. More syringe disposal boxes. Actual sanitation and hygiene access. Showers available at all hours of the day. There are ways to do this to resolve the problems that community members are concerned about, like finding human waste in their backyard. If you want to stop that you have to give people a bathroom to use. It’s the same kind of nonsense rhetoric that broken windows policing is. Instead of fixing the broken window, they just arrest everyone near the window. It’s not a solution. Fix the window.

It’s frustrating to me that I don’t know how we’ll get the political will to do this from enough people. I know any time we talk about taking some money away from the police and putting it into these sorts of things people lose their minds. I’m rather demoralized about the solutions at the moment. I’m thankful that there are people like you and others really paying attention and working on it.

Well I appreciate the work you're doing to highlight it. It’s always an uphill battle. Giving people a window into the human element of this has shifted the conversion in Boston in the last week in a way that had not happened prior to that. The Globe today ran two excellent opinion pieces that you should read if you haven't. Brendan Little’s piece was fabulous, and there was another about actually mapping what this displacement is going to do in terms of healthcare costs and overdose risks and all sorts of things. Predictably it will result in more death and more costs in the long term. The media approach to this story has shifted to a degree, and [incoming mayor] Michelle Wu takes office on November 16, so this is a key window to create a longer term new approach to dealing with issues of a housing crisis and poverty and racism and an overdose crisis and substance use disorder.