Tackling criminal justice reforms: Judge, ex-prisoners talk ideas at HCC

  • A panel of speakers discussed criminal justice reform at Holyoke Community College Wednesday, April 12, 2017. From left to right: Nicole Hendricks, professor of criminal justice, Robert Ryan, chief probation officer for the Eastern Hampshire District Court, Daisy Hernandez, of Voices From Inside/Voices Carry, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor and José Bou, professor of criminal justice. —STAFF PHOTO / EMILY CUTTS

Published: 4/12/2017 11:55:57 PM

HOLYOKE — “Nothing about us without us.”

The slogan used in the disability rights, identity and populist movements was echoed Wednesday morning by Daisy Hernandez, of Voices From Inside and Voices Carry, during an almost two-hour discussion on criminal justice reform at Holyoke Community College.

Voices from Inside is an organization that offers writing workshops for women who are or have been incarcerated as well as those at risk for incarceration.

Hernandez, a Springfield native and student studying social work at Elms College, was incarcerated for seven years. She spoke of what she has learned about needed reforms from her experience going through the criminal justice system.

The slogan struck a chord with other panel members José Bou, a professor of criminal justice at HCC, and U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor.

“We need to be at the table,” Bou said.

Bou holds a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and a master’s degree in criminal justice from Boston University and was incarcerated for 12 years.

For Ponsor, a conversation with a summer intern stressed the need for more interaction on what is going on in communities.

“I had a case involving a fraud in food stamps,” Ponsor said. He said people sometimes illegally turn in their food stamps to a store in return for cash, usually at a lower value.

“I said it was terrible,” he recalled. “(The intern) he said ‘that’s not really what’s going on a lot of the time. Sometimes you don’t need food, you’ve got plenty of food — you need shoes, you need to pay the electricity bill.’”

“We’ve got to talk to each other to figure out what is really going on. More and more of that has to happen,” Ponsor concluded.

Introducing the speakers, Nicole Hendricks, chairwoman of the college’s department of criminal justice, told the approximately 100 people in the crowd they had the “amazing opportunity to hear the voices and vision of people who have been impacted or work in the criminal justice system.”

Across the U.S. around 2.3 million people are incarcerated and another 11.4 million cycle through local jails, Hendricks said. In addition to those numbers, about 600,000 people annually are released from federal and state prisons, she said.

On the topic of the war on drugs and how it has affected the criminal justice system, Ponsor said in his career he’s seen drug offenses “cram our prisons full of people.”

“The rate of incarceration more than tripled in the years I was a judge,” he said. Ponsor started as a judge in 1984 and was appointed to the U.S. District Court by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Because he was serving a mandatory 12-year sentence, Bou said, he was not eligible for “good time,” and he wondered why there was such anger at drug dealers and addicts when statistics show people of all colors do drugs and sell drugs at much the same rate.

“I wondered why they were busting down doors in ghettos and tackling 15-year-old kids in ghettos but I’m sure they could come in here right now into Holyoke Community College and lock a bunch of you all away,” Bou said with a laugh.

“The point is, there is an equal amount of people doing drugs, selling drugs, but there is an unequal targeting of neighborhoods.”

On the topic of providing parity in services for both men and women who have been incarcerated and are re-entering society, Robert Ryan, chief probation officer for the Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, spoke of a program developed by a fellow probation officer to address the needs of women.

“We have a female probation officer … who over time saw that there were some common issues that women who were on probation had to deal with and some common factors in their history as to things they have had to endure,” he said. “She has developed what we call a womanhood program in our court.”

The educational 11-week course brings in speakers on a variety of issues such as drugs, alcohol and finances, as well as other issues that are common to women that may not be particularly critical to the male population, Ryan said.

“In addition to that, probably even more importantly, there is a bond that develops amongst participants of the program,” he said. “It’s amazing to see this group of 10 to 11 women after the 11-week course as compared to their situation at the beginning.”

While improvements are being made, reforming the criminal justice system is a slow process.

“People have to understand that this mass incarceration isn’t working,” Ryan said. “It would be one thing if we were locking people away and it was working and they were coming out and they were beginning a productive life.”

Instead, Ryan proposed that prisoners spend less time behind bars and more time receiving support and supervision.

Recalling an earlier remark about community service or cheap labor within prisons, one attendee asked why those incarcerated should be paid for their work.

“Labor is labor,” Hernandez said.

Citing the state’s former commissioner of corrections, Hendricks said “prison is the punishment.”

“The loss of liberty — somebody losing their liberty and ability to move abut freely — that is the punishment that is passed down,” Hendricks said.

“You go to prison or jail as punishment, not for punishment,” Bou added. “I’m going to prison as punishment, not for you to be creative on how you can further stick it to me.”

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.


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