Opinion guest column

#pick8: Fighting for Massachusetts’s prisoners

Why their relationships matter and what you can do to help save them

With the end of my undergraduate experience drawing near, I have joined the list of seniors scavenging for additional commencement tickets. While my four allotted tickets would suffice for my parents and siblings, I could not simply choose them over my other relatives and family friends who have unconditionally chosen to love and support me in my most difficult times — including the times when I least deserved it. As such, I am doing all I can to find them seats in Killian Court so they too can celebrate what is their achievement and success.

Here in Massachusetts, those incarcerated now have a much more difficult choice to make concerning their loved ones. On Dec. 5 of last year, the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) introduced new visiting procedure regulations for imprisoned people to be implemented on Mar. 9. The biggest change — as well as the most distressing — is the creation of a capped visitor list pre-approval.

The limit on an visitor list will be contingent on the security class of their institution: 10 people for minimum security prisons and pre-release centers, eight people for medium-security prisons, and a mere five visitors for maximum security prisons. Each year, the incarcerated will only have two opportunities to amend their lists. Moreover, inmates are allowed no more than two adult visitors and a “reasonable number of children” pending the pre-approval of their visitor lists.

Although exceptions may be made when the number of people in an inmate’s immediate family exceeds the visitor limit and visiting minors require no prior approval, the core of the new policy stands in contradiction to the DOC’s alleged recognition of the importance of visitors to “an inmate’s well-being and successful re-entry into society.” Strong relationships with loved ones are a crucial part of life for all of us. They are even more critical for inmates who are cut off from their communities.

Here at MIT, Dr. Lee Perlman, a lecturer in the Philosophy and the Experimental Study Group has been taking students into Massachusetts prisons since the late 1980’s. More recently, he began directing MIT’s Prison Initiative, and he affirmed the value of these “humanizing connections” for the incarcerated, the rest of society and even correctional officers. As he explained further, these relationships “motivate the incarcerated to live better lives, which increases safety and order in prison.” In response to the regulatory changes, a Massachusetts prisoner of over thirty years described being “blessed to have the spiritual, physical and emotional support of my family and friends.” If “successful reentry into the community” is to be achieved, it will require the holistic development made possible by genuine, interpersonal relationships.

These regulations are also set to have a harsher effect on minority communities who are disproportionately represented in the prison system. In 2016, 55 percent of incarcerated people under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts identified with racial/ethnic minority groups, a proportion twice that of the entire state population. In many of these communities, extended family and friends often occupy the same innermost circles as immediate relatives, making an inmate’s relationships with such people just as valuable as their relationships with their own siblings. In addition to the already restricted communication between prisoners and the outside world, their potential relocation coupled with the changing geographical distribution of family and friends could easily render one’s visitor list obsolete. The aforementioned prisoner lamented that “ninety percent of [his] immediate family live in three different states,” and he does not learn of their intended visit until they arrive in Massachusetts. Many people in minority groups are less equipped to surmount the economic obstacles that the proposed system is likely to present as compared to their counterparts.

Examining the premise set forth for the announcement of these changes, there appears to be a conflation of the “visiting privileges” of inmates and their need for healthy relationships with those closest to them, no matter how they happen to be related. However, as Dr. Pelman points out, the DOC has a difficult task: Preventing inmates from aiding in external criminal activity and maintaining the safety of prisoners and the public, while simultaneously ensuring the welfare of inmates and facilitating their return to society as productive citizens. When situations go “terribly wrong,” the end results are long-term repercussions for the entire criminal justice system. Still, he believes that we can seek out “the broadest range of outside connections compatible with security and safety.” If I have difficulty picking people to attend my commencement in June, how much harder will it be for an inmate who feels forced to “select eight family and friend members that [he loves] more than the others?” As a society, we must strive against presenting incarcerated people with false, debilitating choices.

How can the students and the broader MIT community respond to the announced changes? You can join local efforts to promote prison reform and tackle this and other issues. In Boston, the Emancipation Initiative, a local organization focused on “infusing the [Massachusetts prison] system with equitable justice” and building strong communities, holds organizational meetings — “Struggle Sessions” — that are currently tackling this issue and are open to the public. Furthermore, you can sign the petition to revoke the new rules due to be implemented. Regardless of your worries or how “well-defined” they are, Dr. Pelman recommends contacting your state representatives and conveying your thoughts to help spark thought and action. I believe this mindset applies across the various avenues for engagement. As he succinctly put it, “expressions of concern are very powerful.”

More generally, remember to use the opportunities you have at your disposal to voice your concerns and follow the developments on this and other issues. Have these conversations with your friends and with professors, be it in your lounges or during forums on campus. The MIT Prison Initiative provides “many opportunities for engagement” and welcomes your suggestions. Recently, the Prison Education Initiative, a new student group advocating for prison education and reform, was formed. You can add yourself to the mailing list or even attend their first event on Feb. 15. Social media and other internet platforms can also be effective ways to advocate for justice and stay informed. For updates on the petition and their movements, you can follow the Emancipation Initiative on Facebook. The #pick8 hashtag is another way to promote and keep up with the movement.

Finally, you should also consider taking a class in a prison with inmates. Having taken MIT students into Massachusetts’ prisons for over 30 years as part of his classes, Dr. Pelman currently teaches Philosophy of Love (ES.112/ES.S42, offered in the Spring) and Non-violence as a Way of Life (ES.S40/ES.S41, usually taught in the fall) with options to take either class with incarcerated students at a Massachusetts prison. Not only will your interactions with these inmates help bring “a sense of normalcy” to their lives and help their development, but they will also challenge your own ideas of what is normal and help you develop various aspects of your life. Such unique opportunities to develop empathy and a deeper understanding of a life behind bars are rare, especially for those of us who have never had to visit a prison.

Michael Dornu Kitcher is member of the MIT Class of 2018.