^ City Council members hold historic hearing inside Suffolk Jail : Stephen Murphy, Mark Ciommo, Chairman Tito Jackson, Matt O’Malley, Josh Zakim, frank Baker

—- —- —- —-

Last night the Suffolk County Jail and its leader Sheriff Steve Tompkins hosted an historic first : a City Council hearing right there, in the jail’s auditorium. It was, said Tompkins, the first time anywhere in the entire nation that a formal City Council hearing had taken place inside a correctional lock-up.

Six Councillors attended : Mark Ciommo; Stephen Murphy; Frank baker; Matt O’Malley; Josh Zakim; and Tito Jackson, chairman of the Council’s Special Committee on the Status of Black and Latino Men and Boys.

The audience included State Representatives Gloria Fox and Russell Holmes; council candidates Andrea Campbell and Jean Claude Sanon; and many City of Boston staffers.

This Special Committee — which, as Jackson said, also cares about Black and Latina Women and  Girls — heard from, and questioned, several panels of witnesses. Including : Suffolk Jail staff; women incarcerated there; City Health Care Officials; the State’s Commissioner of Transitional Assistance; and men incarcerated; police officials; and one Darryl Wright, who announced himself a long term addict now successfully transitioned to the position of licensed addiction treatment counselor.

Jail staff testified to the many, many services and educational programs offered; health care people talked about recovery services. The incarcerated witnesses talked about what got them imprisoned and of their plans for a better life — though some seemed daunted — understandably — by the obstacles to making a better life once you have an imprisonment record.

These are legion : CORI checks; the absurd cost of reinstating a driver’s license; no family, no money, no home; few skills; not much of a support system; and children to feed who cannot wait for things to fall into place. It is true. In our state, if you become imprisoned you’re almost always in addiction or have mental health issues, or both; and are three to four times more likely to be Black or Latino; and probably lack job skills; and are in the company of, or next to, other people in as bad straits as yourself.

All of this the Council committee heard, over and over again. Sheriff Tompkins emphasized the night’s main theme in his won speech : that it’s “outrageous” to have mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, that most of the people who “live downstairs” should be “at home with their families.,”

FullSizeRender (1)

^ Sheriff Tompkins : “the first 72 hours after a person leaves jail are the most crucial if we’re to see them not come back.”

Tompkins and his witnesses also made the point, over and over again, that it’s almost impossible for his “guests” to successfully re-enter society. “95 percent of those who live downstairs are coming out,” he said. “And 55 percent of them are coming back.” Why so ? Because against their lack of skills, family support, and money, and their low self confidence, is a system most reluctant to hire people with a tainted CORI (criminal offender records information), few skills, and no ready way of getting to their job.

Tompkins did not need to remind anyone that it’s hard enough to get ahead or even to keep on keeping on, for most of us, much less for those re-entering society after a year or two in Suffolk Jail. The challenges hung in the air : are we going to change how we re-receive inmates into society or aren’t we ? Are we going to reform sentencing laws or not ? Are we going to change the laws that take driver’s licenses away from people for offenses not connected with driving ?

Tompkins’s coup de theatre succeeded. The City took notice of this Council hearing. Hopefully so will the legislature. We cannot continue to keep so many people in prison, nor incarcerate so many people of color.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


FullSizeRender (1)

^ Governor Baker (with Energy Secretary matt Beaton) testifying at yesterday’s clean energy Legislative hearing

—- —- —- —-

Yesterday Governor Baker testified for a full hour to the legislature’s Public Utilities Committee. In that testimony he committed himself fully to meeting the state’s published goals of reducing greenhouse emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. There were a good 600 people there in Gardner Auditorium, and they heartily applauded Baker’s words, laughed with his jokes, and seemed ex cited to have him as a spokesperson for green energy. Baker too. “I want to make Massachusetts the nation’s leader in clean energy solutions,” he said.

You can listen to the Governor’s testimony here : https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4omc5faDIECSmQ1dDISTFdQaFE/view

Some in the hall seemed to have assumed that Baker would not be a supporter of these goals. (why they thought that, I can’;t guess. Baker is a veteran of Governor Weld’s administration, and Weld was as conservation-mined a chief executive as Massachusetts has elected in my lifetime.) Whatever the assumptions of some, Baker corrected them all. In principle he’s fully aboard the clean energy train.

But principle is not practice. The bill that Baker advocated, Senate 1965, has critics. Before I discuss the criticisms, I invite you to read the legislation itself at this link : https://malegislature.gov/Bills/189/Senate/S1965

The bill seeks to add large chunks of Canadian hydro-power into our state’s green energy mix. Everybody agrees that hydro power should be part of the “diversified portfolio of green energy solutions,” as advocates put it. The difficulty, according to critics, is that Canadian imported hydro power would be expensive; would actually raise electricity rates for Massachusetts consumers. Baker responds that the legislation does not require4 such contracts be entered into, only that the state allow them to be negotiated for. The legislation does say exactly that.

Critics also assert that long-term hydro importation contracts, such as advocated by Baker, would undermine the arrangements currently in place between suppliers and deliverers. Senate 1965 says nothing about that, but it does note that any hydro contract entered into pursuant would require approval by the state;’s Public Utilities Commission.

Critics also aver that Massachusetts is already well on track to meet its Federal Clean Energy Act goals and therefore does not need a bill like Senate 1965. That may be true, but electric rates in Massachusetts have risen substantially during the past two years — some 37 percent at least —  which makes the addition of substantial green energy urgent. As Baker said it : “we need to get large users off the grid.”

It is hard to see how the addition of large hydro power supplies can raise electric rates at all. To accept the critics’ argument one would have to assume that imported hydro power would merely substitute for current power rather than add to it.

One power source that everybody remains committed to is gas supply. This has risks, because West Roxbury people are up in arms — justifiably — about a pipeline plan to route along a major street that borders a blasting quarry. That the pipeline firm planning this route is willing to accept huge public disfavor suggests that there’s an urgent need for much, much mire gas supply. There is; and if pipelines cannot be built because they will pass through communities that face being degraded, hydro importation now has its moment.

Baker also said that he would be open to adding substantial wind power — passionately advocated by one Senator — as well; and that he would study the requirements of the “clean energy standard”: that legislators suggested at the hearing. These details and plans will surely enter the policy conversation, now that Baker wants them discussed. Meanwhile, the state moves forward : to lower electric rates, to increase its alternative energy sources, and to diversify its energy preferences so that all can help. Only one electric power source was not mentioned at all at the hearing : nuclear.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere