Pubdate: Sun, 15 May 2016
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2016 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Akilah Johnson


The tomato seedlings in the urban garden were sprouting. The 
basketball court was filled with men in blue, gray, and brown 
uniforms shooting hoops and doing pushups. Inside, at vocational 
classes, men learned the art of tailoring a suit while a group of 
women studied toward their GEDs.

In many ways, the South Bay House of Correction has become a 
microcosm of the country's evolving attitudes toward drug abuse and 
drug-related crimes. The facility just off Interstate 93 in Boston is 
a different place compared with the early 1990s, when leaders in 
Washington passed a stringent crime bill that authorized stiff 
penalties for drug crimes and nearly doubled the country's prison population.

"If we were having this conversation 15, 20 years ago, it would be a 
lot different," said Eugene Sumpter Jr., special sheriff of Suffolk 
County and superintendent of Nashua Street Jail. Back then, the jail 
and house of correction, he recalled, were "busting at the seams."

The legacy of the 1994 crime bill has become a key issue in national 
politics as presidential candidates and members of Congress talk of 
rolling back the initiatives it put in place. Both Democratic 
candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have criminal justice 
reform platforms.

Gone is the era when a "lock them up" attitude prevailed in dealing 
with the crimes that often accompany addiction, everything from 
possession of a controlled substance to stealing to support a drug 
habit. Now, presidential candidates are calling for treatment instead 
of incarceration as they talk of how addiction, specifically the 
opioid crisis, has affected friends and family.

But at South Bay, where nearly three-fourths of the inmates contend 
with substance abuse issues, a growing emphasis on care - and not 
just custody and control - predates the national spotlight trained on 
the issue of addiction.

Felicia Young, a South End native who is addicted to cocaine, said 
she started cycling in and out of jail in 1992.

"My addiction comes with the behavior. If I didn't have an addiction 
I wouldn't be here," said the 43-year-old currently serving a 
15-month sentence in South Bay. "I have an addiction that leads me to 
doing illegal things."

Young said she's taken advantage of South Bay's growing roster of 
programs during her time inside- Freedom from Violence, Domestic 
Violence, Recovery 101, Recovery II, Impulse Control, and culinary 
arts certifications. And the programs worked - until her mother's 
death led to a relapse, ending eight years of sobriety.

After President Bill Clinton signed the 1994 crime bill into law, 
drug crimes became the predominant reason why people go to jail or 
prison. The crime bill's aftermath is something that has haunted 
Hillary Clinton, and to a lesser extent Sanders, along the campaign 
trail as critics say her husband bears responsibility for how it 
ravaged poor black and Latino communities.

Last month, the former president got into a tense back-and-forth with 
protesters about the legacy of the bill, one of his signature pieces 
of legislation, during a campaign stop for his wife at a rally in 
Philadelphia. And while he defended it then, Clinton has also 
admitted that the 1994 crime bill exacerbated mass incarceration, 
saying it "made the problem worse."

And now, his wife and Sanders, who voted for the crime bill as member 
of Congress, want to undo much of what was done in the 1990s.

"The first policy speech I gave in this campaign over a year ago was 
about criminal justice reform," Hillary Clinton told the NAACP in 
Detroit earlier this month. "We have seen the toll on families torn 
apart by excessive incarceration, children growing up in homes 
shattered by prison and poverty."

The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, who has spoken 
about the death of his brother because of alcoholism, doesn't have a 
criminal justice platform per se. The "drug epidemic" is listed as an 
issue on Trump's website, where, in a 43-second video, he says he'll 
"build a wall" to keep drugs out of the country and "work with" those 
who are addicted to drugs "and try and make them better."

Between 1994 and 2014, the country's prison population nearly 
doubled, with a disproportionate number of inmates being blacks and 
Latinos, particularly those from poor communities, according to 
federal statistics.

The crime bill also kept in place the vast sentencing disparities 
between crack and powdered cocaine, which were a carry-over from the 
Reagan administration, while imposing mandatory minimum sentences for 
nonviolent drug crimes.

The swift effect was exploding prison populations and imploding 
communities. Families were torn apart. Housing, jobs, and education 
opportunities were short-circuited by jail time. Pensions, 
disability, and veterans benefits must be forfeited at times for 
those convicted of drug offenses.

"This was almost an evil policy. It was really about us versus them. 
And there's a need now, in this presidential election, to clean that 
up," said James Jennings, professor emeritus of race, politics, and 
urban policy at Tufts University. "When we look at who went to jail 
based on using drugs, what this crime bill did was racialize a drug 
problem. Drugs was not a health issue in the lives of black and 
Latino communities, but a crime issue."

Michael Galloway, 44, said "it took years for me to just keep bumping 
my head on the same wall to figure out that it hurt." But with a 
lengthy criminal history, the Roxbury native said people focused on 
his past and not his potential. Then, in 2008, he was sentenced to 
drug court instead of jail.

"The drug of choice was crack. Everything I did was all about drugs," 
he said. "If I never started doing drugs and living that lifestyle 
that comes with doing drugs, I wouldn't have had a criminal record," he said.

With the help of counseling, Galloway rebuilt a life for himself. But 
he said he got comfortable, stopped focusing on his sobriety, and let 
conflict creep back into his life. Now, he's back in South Bay, and 
like fellow inmate Felicia Young, he's taking advantage of everything 
South Bay offers. "Even things I'm not totally interested in, I do it anyway."

Those behind the wall, who were ensnared by drug policies of the 
past, say it's about time the conversation shifted to getting people 
help, not handcuffs. Along with law enforcement, public health, and 
criminal justice experts, they say the seismic shift in drug policies 
from incarceration to treatment has everything to do with who is 
dying from what drugs now.

Crack cocaine mostly ravaged poor, urban communities of color in the 
early 1990s. Today, rural and suburban white families are contending 
with the destruction wrought by opiates.

"Now that it's in the suburban communities, there's a whole different 
approach to it," said Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins. 
"This issue of drugs went from being a criminal issue to a health issue."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom