City councilors hold hearing behind bars
He identified himself as Michael G., a recovering addict.
For five years, he stayed clean. He went to school, hoping to become a counselor so he could work with others in the thrall of substance abuse.
But then, he heeded the call of drugs again. And he wound up here, in the Suffolk County House of Correction.
“I was so caught up . . . I let myself on the back burner,” Michael G. said, “and that’s how my addiction caught back up with me.”
Stories of shattered lives, questionable choices, and the long, hard road back into society came front and center at the inaugural hearing Tuesday evening of a City Council committee devoted to black and Latino men and boys. This meeting was unlike anything before: The city councilors came to the jail, the first time a council committee has met in such a facility.
The meeting aimed to address how to create opportunities for incarcerated men of color to help prevent them from returning to jail after they leave.
“It’s quite apropos that we are here with the people so we can get feedback from the affected population,” said Councilor Frank Baker of Dorchester, one of six councilors who attended the meeting. “I have been here not as a customer. But I have visited family here . . . and I can feel the pain of what happens in here.”
The city councilors heard from men and women. They heard stories of despair and loss — and hope.
“Our hearts are heavy with the number of folks who are downstairs who should be in their homes with their families,” Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins said.
A female inmate testified she stole to provide for her family after a previous incarceration and after being consumed with hopelessness when she could not get a job.
Another woman said she is serving time because of guilt that persuaded her to let her oldest son sell drugs out of her house.
“For the past five years, everything he did wrong, I took the blame for it,” the 45-year-old woman said to a packed room.
“My heart aches for you,” said City Councilor Tito Jackson, who organized the meeting and chairs the committee.
Another inmate recalled how she was arrested even though it was her boyfriend who sold drugs from her apartment.
“He didn’t really step up,” she said. “Unfortunately, I took the rap for the crime.”
Because her name was on the apartment lease, she was charged, she said.
“I’m serving two years and a day,” she said, adding later, “I’ve been here for a year.”
The speakers said more jobs, education, food, and shelter are crucial, particularly in the first 72 hours after an inmate’s release from jail. Jackson said 95 percent of the inmates will eventually come out.
“So we need to treat them . . . as people who are going to be living next to us and with us in our community, treating them with dignity and respect and also giving them the skills that they need,” he said.
An inmate who is serving time for a breaking-and-entering conviction said drinking is his downfall.
“Drinking makes me come back to jail,” he said.
He said he wants to get a job, get clean, and make his family proud — and not take things that don’t belong to him.
Tompkins, using stark data, laid out the hard realities facing black and Latino men under his care.
Of the facility’s inmates, 868 are black, 484 are Hispanic, and 356 are white, Tompkins said.
Tompkins said 70 percent of the inmates are involved with illegal drugs, and 42 percent suffer from mental illness. The recidivism rate is 46 percent, he added.
And 87 percent of the 113 inmates serving mandatory sentences for low-level offenses are black or Latino, Tompkins said.
“Something is grossly wrong with that,’’ he said.
He said the House of Correction emphasizes getting inmates their high school equivalency diplomas, vocational training, and other critical services.
On average, the inmates’ math and reading comprehension is on a fifth- or sixth-grade level, he said.
The hearing lasted for more than 2½ hours. Of the six councilors who were there at the start, only two remained at the end.