Ma. corrections commissioner’s move to Va. raises questions

Harold Clarke leaves job in which he has had few successes for job with even bigger challenges

Corrections Commissioner Harold Clarke is leaving Massachusetts this month to take the same job in Virginia, prompting speculation in both states about what his departure and arrival means.

Clarke, who has been the Massachusetts corrections commissioner for the past three years, isn’t talking, other than to say he is leaving to be closer to his siblings.

What is clear is that he is leaving a job in which he has had relatively few successes for a job where he faces even bigger challenges. Virginia has the country’s eighth-highest prison population, with a third of its inmates in for non-violent crimes. It has nearly three times as many prisoners, a third more prisons, and twice as many prison employees as Massachusetts. Unless sentenced before the state’s anti-parole law passed in 1995, no inmate is released on parole. Virginia also has the death penalty. Clarke’s annual pay will increase in Virginia by $10,000 to $150,000.

Clarke, who is an African-American, is also saying goodbye to a progressive African-American governor and joining forces with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a self-described conservative Christian who got his law degree from Pat Robinson’s faith-based Regent University Law School and designated April as Confederates History month.

“Still, the guy is launching prison reform down there that’s gotten absolutely nowhere in Massachusetts,” says former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, who chaired the Commission on Corrections Reform in 2004. “The fact that McDonnell is a right-winger is irrelevant. This is serious bipartisan stuff.”

Carla Peterson, director of the Virginia chapter of CURE, a 33-state prison advocacy group, is thrilled about Clarke’s hiring. “We are like, oh goody! It’s really happening! We are amazed that this new governor is actually doing things that are more productive than his two Democratic predecessors.” Peterson says Clarke’s arrival is a dramatic step in what she describes as Gov. McDonnell’s “correctional conversion.”

Conversion is the polite word for what one observer calls bi-polar politics. When he took office almost a year ago, McDonnell’s move to create Confederates History month to follow Black History month, without a single reference to the role slavery played in the Confederacy, brought a national firestorm. He responded by including slavery as part of what the month is about.

A week later the governor stirred controversy again when he added a new condition to the state’s felony disenfranchisment law. He said convicted felons seeking to reclaim their right to vote must write an essay on “reasons why you believe the restoration of civil rights is justified.” McDonnell’s essay initiative came a month after a Tea Party Convention where former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo suggested a literacy test for voting rights “to protect America from presidents like Obama.”

Virginia and Kentucky are the only states with constitutional laws mandating that convicted felons, including those who aren’t sentenced to prison, permanently lose the right to vote, serve on a jury, or own a gun. Because of the law, approximately 300,000 people in the state—of whom one in five are African-American men—currently don’t vote.  

In response to the outcry over his essay-writing edict, McDonnell dropped the requirement and streamlined the process for deciding whether to return, or deny, a non-violent felon’s voting rights within six months of someone applying for the right. Within weeks, he granted 87 percent of the 1,014 requests to restore voting rights.

McDonnell took his unexpected support of felons one step further by establishing the Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-Entry Council and the Non-Violent Offenders Task Force. “We must assist prisoners re-entering the community,” he said in announcing the bipartisan 20-member council, “in their effort to succeed rather than to re-offend.”

The plan is to establish prison alternatives and, for those in prison, intensive re-entry preparation. Without parole or low security facilities in Virginia, there’s no transitional system in place to help dodge the well-documented recidivism the shock and awe of release often brings. It was a startling about-face for a former prosecutor, attorney general, and legislative chair of the state’s Courts of Justice Committee who had pushed to eliminate parole.

 “He then hired an African-American from a liberal state to run our prisons?” asks a disbelieving Kent Willis from the  Virginia ACLU. “I don’t know if it was the voice of God or a big contribution for his next political run from Prison Fellowship Ministries, but this is coming across like some kind of epiphany. Being compassionate to prisoners is sure not the stuff of politics-as-usual in this state.” 

Preparing prisoners for re-entry was integral to Clarke’s agenda to reform Massachusetts’ prisons. As a result, Clarke’s appointment is fueling a wave of hopeful speculation in Virginia that Gov. McDonnell has bought into the concept of reentry. “He knows that getting people out of prison saves a whole lot of money,” suggests ACLU’s Willis.

In Massachusetts, Clarke’s departure is being viewed as a sign of just how difficult it is to change the orientation of a correctional system, even in a liberal state. Some advocates say Clarke bailed because he was having difficulty implementing his re-entry philosophy; others suggest he talks the talk, but when it comes to confronting politicians and unions, he is quick to walk.

“When the going gets tough, Clarke gets going,” says Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, a non-profit which provides litigation and advocacy for Massachusetts inmates in the realm of physical and mental health, guard and prisoner violence, and segregation. “He’s a warm and engaging man with a solid reform track-record whose actions ultimately revealed that he cares more about climbing the career ladder than really helping to make things better.” Virginia is Clarke’s third prison-chief job in eight years.

Walker is critical of Clarke for deciding last year to move all maximum security prisoners out of  MCI-Cedar Junction, known mostly as Walpole, to double-bunk them at the MCI-Souza-Baranowski prison.  Clarke’s justification for the shift was to transform Walpole into a prisoner intake facility, and turn the Concord correction facility into a medium security prison. “That was his excuse. The problem is that the result of cramming an additional 450 prisoners together and keeping them locked down for 19 hours a day resulted in absolutely awful inmate and staff violence, self-mutilation, and suicide,” Walker said. “The union fought it. We filed suit. We begged. He dug his heels in. We got nowhere.”

The part of reform Clarke neglected is a system called classification. With time served, and signs of effort in the form of classes and programs, prisoners are supposed to receive scores every six months by a non-discretionary, numerical system which, with good behavior,  slowly, but steadily moves them to lower security, prior to release.

 “It’s a simple and obvious way to move prisoners around that avoids over-crowding and gets them prepped for the real world,” Walker said. “What Clarke did completely defies something almost every state does better than Massachusetts. Bottom line, when you let someone out of prison after years of being locked down in high security, they are dangerously wired. That is not the way to handle re-entry.”

Walker urges viewing the DOC’s website re-entry video in which Clarke says, “Everyone who works in corrections has a role in re-entry. Re-entry is everything we do.”     “That comes across as such a joke,” says Walker. “What he means is everything he didn’t have the political willpower to do.”

When Clarke first became commissioner he made an attempt to get support for making big changes by recruiting MGT of America, Inc. an independent national consulting firm used to assess how different parts of the public sector are doing their job. The punch line in their 196 page report wasn’t good: Massachusetts’ criminal justice system—court, prison, probation, and parole– is “so decentralized that effective action is difficult” and, compared to almost every other state, overcrowding has a lot to do with too many “pre-trial offenders” being sent to prison. Overall, it described the system as “Conservative, reactive, and slow to change.” Its conservative nature was described as “basing decisions on past incidents”, specifically “the Horton and Geoghan incidents”. (John Geoghan was a priest defrocked for sexual abuse who was murdered by another inmate while serving a 10-year prison sentence for assault and battery on a 10-year-old boy. William ‘Willie’ Horton was an inmate granted a weekend furlough in 1986 while serving a life sentence for murder. On release, he committed a rape and murder, an event that became part of the Bush campaign’s successful effort to defeat Michael Dukakis, whose administration had launched the ‘weekend furlough program’.) 

Kathleen Dennehy, the former commissioner who Clarke replaced, says what makes being commissioner so hard in Massachusetts is the “Willie Horton Syndrome”. Like her, Clarke was up against a Legislature and union unwilling to come across as being compassionate in any way toward prisoners.  

“It was politics and union resistance to any change that threw me,” says Dennehy, who was bumped out of the job when the Patrick Administration took office and replaced her with Clarke. She’s currently working on a Ph.D at Brandeis on prison sexual violence. She’s also part of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission and The Corrections Accountability Project. “Almost every aspect of the state’s public safety system—corrections, probation, parole, and the human service programs directly related to it, is nothing but turf wars and conflicting goals and missions. Being so disorganized has a direct impact on the outcome. The outcome of prison is that for a whole lot of money it accomplishes very little, and mostly makes things worse.”

According to a Pew Charitable Trusts funded study called: Collateral Costs, Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility, the cost of prison has quadrupled over the past two decades. Massachusetts spends nearly $550 million a year on 21 prisons. About $20 million of that goes to the direct cost of prisoners, the remainder to the maintenance of facilities and staff salary. That figure doesn’t include the state’s 14 county jails, inmate health care, probation or parole. 

“The funds for re-entry are way off,” says Dennehy. “What you learn fast on the inside is that the most cost effective thing to do in prison is to get people back into society as fast as possible, hooked up with things to prevent the reasons they fell apart in the first place. Mental illness and substance abuse help, housing, work, and a support system. The job goes way beyond a commissioner—it’s about public awareness pushing policy makers.”

After the Patrick administration locked-in staff salary increases for the Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union shortly after taking office in 2007, one of the few places left to cut in the budget was mental health services. State officials lopped $75 million, even though studies have indicated 25 percent of Massachusetts’ prisoners have mental health issues. In the last decade, there have been more than 3,000 self-inflicted injuries or suicide attempts, which is four times the national average. 

Massachusetts also missed out on federal funds for re-entry and reform known as The Second Chance Act because probation, parole, and prison operate separately, which is a violation of the fund’s requirement that they are one entity with a “comprehensive approach.” Clarke’s response to the no-change atmosphere of the prison system is suggested in a DOC re-entry video when he says, “The Budget is the least challenging; other challenges include our own staff and the public at large, both the Legislature and the average citizen.”

In the wake of Clarke’s departure going public, a petition went into circulation that demands the immediate formation of a DOC oversight commission. It refers to the fact that the same request was made 6 years ago in Harshbarger’s Corrections Reform report.  In a blog post on, Harshbarger attributes Clarke’s departure to the state’s correctional and probation systems being “riddled with political patronage, funded with large budgets and high costs, and unnecessarily poor outcomes.”

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 “Despite the fact we’ve a roadmap for tough and smart reform, and Clarke is a top-flight professional on reform, we’ve gotten nothing done because there’s such huge political control of the system, it’s immovable.” He adds that the needed repairs are obvious and simple, but “what we lack, frankly, is the political leadership.”

Harshbarger says he’s not surprised that such a “tough law-and-order conservative” like McDonnell is going in a direction generally viewed as liberal. “It’s evidence-based. If you set people up for re-entry and get them out, it offers a fiscal and public safety payback that is flat-out stupid to not pursue. Virginia looks like it might completely lead Massachusetts on this one.”