Content Warning: Violence, Racial Violence
Right now, the people held at the Hampden County Jail (HCJ), a correctional center located 16 miles from campus, are facing constant abuse. In letters to a local abolitionist group named Decarcerate Western Mass, incarcerated people have detailed the regular violations and threats they face inside the jail. One person was held on the ground and beaten while crying and screaming. Another person had a special ops team called on him for refusing to lock-in even though he had just requested to speak to someone other than the officer on duty before lock-in. He was beaten and shackled so tightly that he couldn’t walk. Another incarcerated person was attacked in his cell at night by a guard because another guard had claimed that he smelled smoke in his cell despite a lack of evidence. Now, this prisoner is being threatened with an assault suit for defending himself. An inmate with diabetes was repeatedly denied blood-sugar checks and, by extension, his insulin, and only when he threatened legal action did this end. The ongoing trauma these people experience daily should not be ignored and sheds light on a larger issue that is not unique to the HCJ.
Abuse of incarcerated people in the United States is completely normalized. In a Justice Department inquiry into abuse in Alabama’s prison system, 92 percent of the prisons were found to have systemic problems with excessive use of force. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice found that about 39 percent of those currently incarcerated in the U.S. have “little public safety rationale” behind their imprisonment, meaning their release is incredibly unlikely to pose a threat to public safety. Additionally, their findings suggest that nearly 80 percent of incarcerated people suffer from some form of mental illness or drug addiction and 40 percent have both. Incarceration itself is extremely harmful to people’s mental health, so there is little logic in imagining that prison will, in any way, address these illnesses. From this data, it seems that many of these people are incarcerated simply because our justice system values carceral punishment over any attempt to help them resolve the issues that drove them to commit a crime originally. All of these issues stem from the systemic racism and classism that has defined so much of our criminal justice system.
These problems are not and should not be separated from our education or lives. We cannot distance ourselves from them — at least because of the fact that they are happening just 16 miles away. The system that creates and perpetuates these issues is the same one that gives us the privilege to attend this college. If our education is just a means to get a job or elevate only ourselves, then we have failed to take that privilege conscientiously. On that note, there is something all of us can do to support the people at HCJ right now.
There is a petition, written by the incarcerated people of the HCJ, to address these grievances and demand institutional changes at the jail to ensure the people held there are guaranteed their human rights. Decarcerate Western Mass is campaigning to get these demands met by raising awareness and resources for the people in HCJ. If you have the money to spare, they have a bail fund for HCJ that people can donate to. If you have time, the organization is currently communicating with the people held at the HCJ through letter-writing, and they are always in need of more people to write letters. If letter-writing presents too much of a time commitment, keep an eye for action items like phone zaps or other forms of protest that come up on the Decarcerate Western Mass social media page. Some of these actions could take minutes, others hours, but each action is a necessary step in mitigating and preventing the abuses happening at the HCJ.
We can do more. Complicity is easy, and I don’t think activism absolves us of that reality. But, at the very least, activism can make a material difference in the lives of those who suffer under these systems, and that should matter.