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A drive to rethink what incarceration is for

Tremayne Ellison took part in a tailoring class at the South Bay Correctional Facility.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff

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.

Felicia Young says she has committed crimes to feed an addiction to cocaine, cycling in and out of jail since 1992. “If I didn’t have an addiction, I wouldn’t be here,” she says.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

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 said he has rebuilt a life for himself.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

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.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.