Prisoners: We were punished for local outreach

July 10, 2009
By

John Ruch

Gov. makes surprise prison visit

Gazette web exclusive

Prisoners who conducted acclaimed anti-crime outreach to youths in Jackson Square and other communities say they are facing crackdowns from prison officials unhappy about the efforts, and recently received a surprise in-person visit from Gov. Deval Patrick in response, the Gazette has learned.

The crackdowns nearly derailed the outreach efforts, including a series of educational documentary films, but that work may be back on track, a source close to the process told the Gazette.

“It’s been an ongoing war…over us really wanting to the right thing,” prisoner Mac Hudson told the Gazette, complaining he and others were punished with lockdowns, “shakedowns,” “petty harassment” and “false reports.” Hudson grew up in Jamaica Plain/Roxbury’s Jackson Square area and briefly worked there as well.

Hudson said that concern expressed by local community leaders, including City Councilor Chuck Turner and Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation Executive Director Mildred Hailey, led to Patrick’s June 17 visit to two state prisons.

“Meeting the governor under this situation—I guess what was inspiring about the whole deal was that the community responded,” Hudson said. “He didn’t really say much. He listened, more or less. He said he needs folks like us to come out of prison and continue that sort of work on the outside.”

The Governor’s Office did not respond to Gazette questions about Patrick’s visits, which were unpublicized.

Patrick reportedly was joined on his prison visits by a bevy of high-ranking officials, including the heads of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Steven Kenneway, president of the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, said he had not heard of the prisoners’ complaints, but added that they cannot be true.

“Our guys are strict professionals,” he said. “There’s no crackdown, no false reports going on.”

Recent articles in the Boston Herald that claimed state Rep. Gloria Fox sneaked a woman into prison for illicit visits were incorrect, several sources told the Gazette, confirming a press statement issued by Fox. In fact, Fox also was responding to complaints about retaliation against prisoners, and the false tips that led to the Herald’s articles were part of that payback, according to Hudson and other sources.

Hailey, Turner and Rev. William Dickerson of Dorchester’s Greater Love Tabernacle Church all told the Gazette that they could not confirm whether the prisoners’ complaints are valid. But all of them have visited the prisoners for recent community outreach events, and they praised those events highly.

Hudson, a convicted murderer who grew up in Jackson Square’s Academy Homes and briefly worked as a highly praised youth outreach worker at a Bromley-Heath organization, was profiled by the Gazette earlier this year. (He maintains his innocence in the murder case, while acknowledging he lived a life of crime.) He was a participant in a well-received, youth-aimed documentary called “Voices from the Behind the Walls.”

The film was part of a community outreach effort called The Strongest Link, organized by Turner’s office and involving prisoners at Old Colony Correctional Center. The popular film, which aims to give at-risk youths straight talk about the consequences of crime, was produced by Teen Empowerment, a non-profit organization that has an Egleston Square branch.

The prisoners organized inside the prison as well, forming a large self-improvement group called the African Heritage Coalition (AHC). Hudson said the group highlights African-American community issues, but is open to all well-intentioned prisoners. AHC documents from within the prison, obtained by the Gazette, show that it held well-attended meetings earlier this year on such topics as “Healing Our Community”—or, as Hudson more bluntly put it, “how we have basically sold out our community” and how to make it right.

AHC also organized holiday events, including a Black History Month celebration, that were attended by residents and activists from the outside world.

Dickerson told the Gazette that prisoners at the Black History Month event publicly asked him for forgiveness and ritually passed him a homemade paper baton to signify their commitment.

“The gatherings have been very positive,” Dickerson said.

But the AHC’s success at organizing and drawing outside attention reportedly led uneasy guards and other officials to stage crackdowns, Hudson said. That also threatened the documentary film projects, which may have continued with other prisoners—possibly ones with more suburban backgrounds. Prisoner Darrell Jones, one of the main organizers and film participants, was transferred to another prison where he cannot participate in more films. Teen Empowerment Executive Director Stanley Pollock confirmed there had been informal discussion in recent months with DOC about making more films, but with different prisoners.

Darren Howell, a Turner aide who shephered the Strongest Link organizing, was warned to “separate himself” from Jones and the project by DOC, Turner said.

“We think the issue is, the guards are threatened by this focus on men changing their relationship with each other and the community,” Turner told the Gazette.

“They are opposed to [the efforts] because of the perception that all of us are criminals and can’t be trusted…[and] that this must all be a scam of some sort,” Hudson said of guards and some prison officials. He added that not all prison officials are involved in the crackdown.

“I don’t expect nobody to do something for us…but why interfere with me if I’m going to do the [self-rehabilitation] work?” Hudson said.

Patrick’s visit has resulted in a re-evaluation of the prisoners’ efforts and appears to be leading to progress on allowing them to continue with the documentary film projects, a well-placed source told the Gazette.

Hailey told the Gazette that humane prisoner outreach is ultimately a wise crime-fighting tool, especially for the many prisoners who will return to the community one day.

“Rehabilitation is going to stop the whole recidivism thing,” she said. “I believe we need these voices from behind the walls.”