On July 7, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department held a Senate Forum with Senator Ed Markey and Congressman Joe Kennedy III, candidates for the US Senate in this year’s election.
The forum, which was moderated by Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, was closed to the public, but was live streamed on Facebook and included questions from men and women in custody at the South Bay House of Correction. Each candidate had their own round of questions and were not in the room at the same time, and masks were worn by everyone and social distancing was observed.
Questions ranged from concerns about transportation access to ensuring support after prison to childcare and housing.
In his opening statement, Senator Markey said that the criminal justice system needs to be “overhauled,” and that resources are not currently provided to people to make sure they get the help they need before, during, and after prison. “We have to change that,” he said.
“You learn a lot about a country by who it imprisons,” Markey said. “We imprison the black and the brown citizens in our country in disproportionate numbers.”
When asked about the necessity for access to transportation, Markey said that he and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley introduced legislation saying that public transportation should be free “so that you’re able to go to your destination, to be where you have to be, to do what you have to do.”
Congressman Kennedy agreed that “the obstacles that exist” for people to be able to get to and from places like work, school, and the grocery store “are massive” and possibly expanding or rethinking programs like the MBTA’s The Ride could be part of the solution.
Markey was also asked why prisons and jails are becoming “de facto mental health institutions,” and he said that de-institutionalizing people about 35 years ago put people with mental illness out on the streets.
“What we did was we took one program and ended it,” he said, adding that the government then did not provide funding to ensure that individuals received proper health care. He said that making access to treatment available “before they do something that results in the police taking them” is necessary, as are sufficient funds for the mental health system in general.
“We criminalize low level offenses rather than give resources,” he said, saying that mental health issues should be treated like the diseases they are.
Markey was also asked why he is “interested in what we have to say if we are not able to vote as inmates?” In Massachusetts, those incarcerated for a felony are ineligible to vote, but are permitted to do so again once they are released.
Markey responded with “because you’re citizens; because everyone should be treated with dignity.” He said that one day, “you’re going to go back out there,” and after leaving prison, he wants to make sure they get the help and support they need to be successful. “We have to think of you as a part of a larger family,” he said, and make sure that many issues are treated as health issues, not criminal ones.
“Our country in this moment is in the midst of a massive cry for change,” Kennedy said in his opening statement.
Kennedy called for fewer people in jails, and “[making] sure we aren’t incarcerating folks who are sick.”
On police reform, Markey said that “every police officer should have to wear a camera. There should be no circumstances of where they aren’t and there should be a full recording of what took place.”
He added that “any police officer that engages in conduct that violates the constitutional rights of an individual should be held accountable…in the criminal justice system.”
Markey also called for more social workers, mental health resources, drug rehabilitation workers, and employment opportunities to be funded with the reallocation of resources. He said doing so will help rid of the “school to prison pipeline” in America.
“This is the moment of reckoning,” Markey said. “We need police accountability” and to deal with the “racial bias that is built into the system.” He talked about sentencing guidelines and the discrepancy that exists between crack and powdered cocaine.
Markey was also asked about his initiatives against gun violence, and why there is a lot of housing for people dealing with substance abuse but not those involved in gun violence.
Markey said that despite the National Rifle Association (NRA) not wanting it, he succeeded in adding $25 million to the federal budget for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to conduct research on the causes of gun violence. He also agreed that more assistance and funding for those involved in gun violence is necessary.
“A vision without funding is a hallucination,” he said.
When asked about how he will help with racial disparities if elected to the Senate, Kennedy said “we need to be doing so much more. My efforts are obviously not enough. My commitment to you is to do everything I possibly can.” He talked about filing legislation to address structural inequities, but he said showing up to communities “who have been screaming about this for longer than I’ve been alive” and “where people are unseen and unheard” is vital. “There is value in showing up,” he said.
Kennedy said that “the way in which we approach the ‘war on drugs’ does not work,” and it “has to change.”
He said those in prison for a long period of time also need access to education and professional development programs to give them skill sets to be able to provide for their families once they are out of prison.
Markey also said he will advocate for change to the mandatory minimum sentencing system, which he said is “leading to over incarceration.” Kennedy agreed that they system needs to change.
Housing was another issue brought up several times in different contexts. Markey said that making sure people do not get evicted from their homes and ensuring they have income coming in each month is important.
Kennedy said that “housing is one of the biggest roadblocks that we face here,” and more money is needed for affordable housing as many people who are vital to running the city can’t even afford to live in it. “100 percent, we have to do an awful lot more,” Kennedy said.
One of the women said that many inmates do not trust elected officials like Kennedy because “you haven’t had our background.” She said that when she gets out, she wants to fight for women inmates, and suggested that hiring people like her would be a huge help to elected officials. “People that don’t know what it’s like to be arrested” shouldn’t be the ones making decisions on related topics, she said, adding that she believes former inmates acting as consultants could be beneficial.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Kennedy said. “Government is the way we as a collective respond to challenges.”
In closing, Markey reiterated his commitment to working on the lack of funding for substance abuse and mental health issues, which are “making it difficult for people to reincorporate into society,” he said.
“I promise you that I will fight with every ounce of strength which I have to overhaul this criminal justice system; this policing system,” he added. There are “too many people behind bars who shouldn’t be there.”
Kennedy said that “our normal…isn’t good enough. We have a chance to actually reset the trajectory of our country.” He called for “policies that meet people where they are and say ‘let’s do something about it.’”
The full Senate forum can be viewed on the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page.