One candidate recalled visiting family locked up there. Others vying for office mentioned clients behind the facility's bars. And another aspiring pol recalled a young man who had passed through its walls before becoming point guard for a neighborhood basketball team.
The five Democrats and one independent running for Suffolk County district attorney made history Tuesday by participating in a forum held Tuesday within the South Bay House of Correction.
ACLU Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose, whose organization worked with Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins on arranging the venue, said Tuesday was the first political forum that she knows of held in a house of correction. Guests had to pass through security to attend the event.
The correctional facility located near a major trouble spot in Boston's opioid epidemic is home to people locked up at the urging of the district attorney and the order of a judge after pleading guilty or being convicted at trial. It is also the site of an opioid treatment program for pre-trial detainees.
The candidates who spoke to the roughly two dozen men and women inmates and detainees talked about their ideas for reducing the jail and prison population by generally seeking lower bail, practicing restraint in issuing charges and making use of pre-arraignment diversion programs.
"I have visited family members here. I don't look at you as simply defendants. I haven't only interacted with black and brown people in a criminal context, which a lot of people up here have," said Rachael Rollins, who was general counsel at top state transportation agencies.
Greg Henning, a former prosecutor who mostly recently headed up the county gang unit, described volunteering for College Bound Dorchester about nine years ago, an experience that he said changed his perspective on the role of a prosecutor.
"As a basketball coach and mentor I came in contact with young men that I had prosecuted, in particular the starting point guard on the basketball team was a young man we had put into this very facility," Henning said.
Rep. Evandro Carvalho, a former prosecutor, said that he has come close to making decisions that would have resulted in jail time.
"At 17 years old I was arrested in Dorchester. I have a criminal record. But yet because of those chances that I've got, because of teachers, because of God really, I stand here today," Carvalho said.
Linda Champion, who described herself as a "formerly homeless teenager" who moved to Boston at age 18, said the the Registry of Motor Vehicles should give everyone a state ID card when they leave a correctional facility and said, "It is inhumane to force detox on an individual who is not ready."
Shannon McAuliffe and Michael Maloney, who is the only candidate in the race not affiliated with a political party, both touted that they have only sat on the defense side of the table.
"I will get you fundamentally different results," McAuliffe said. A former public defender who later worked with gang-involved youth for the non-profit Roca, McAuliffe said "I think it's great that we have all these prosecutors here today who've been in Suffolk County who have these newfound ideas about bail, but what I can tell you is from being a public defender for 12 years - I've work ed in this county with these prosecutors, and in a system where people come in and ask for very high bails."
A defense attorney and cannabis entrepreneur, Maloney said the justice system shouldn't penalize people who test positive for marijuana, which he called an "exit drug," saying it can help people kick addiction to other substances.
The messages resonated with the audience who will be eligible to vote in September and November as long as they are not currently locked up on a felony.
Tyquannya Tyson, a 23-year-old, who asked the candidates about deportation, said Champion and Rollins "really impressed me," mentioning the struggles that Champion has overcome. Abraham Perez, 33, said he liked what McAuliffe and Maloney had to say and that he has had to deal with addiction.
The five Democrats generally spoke against the idea of deporting someone convicted of a non-violent offense, while Maloney criticized leadership of the federal Department of Justice but said it is not the DA's responsibility to "deal with the potential consequences on the back end."
The forum was moderated by Andrea Cabral, who was Suffolk County sheriff and was former Gov. Deval Patrick's secretary of public safety and security. Those incarcerated at the facility asked all but one of the 12 questions put to the candidates.
Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley's decision not to seek another term this year after 16 years in office has created an opening for the top law enforcement position covering the state's biggest city.
Most of the candidates criticized current prosecutorial practices and the lack of state funding for people re-entering society after being incarcerated.
Chante Graham asked why prosecutors apply so much pressure on defendants to take a plea deal. A 28-year-old serving an eight-month sentence for assault and battery that she said will end on primary day, Graham told reporters that she had felt pressured to take a plea bargain after she and a friend got into a "pushing match" in Roxbury.
"It's easy. Because it's the status quo," said McAuliffe. She said, "Our prosecutor's offices have gotten lazy."
"We over-charge people with crimes," said Rollins. She said, "We're leveraging you and it's not right."
Carvalho said "people who control the decision-making want it like that."
Maloney said prosecutors are "grossly overworked," and "dealing with an influx of cases that really should not be charged."
Prosecutors need to "seek and find the truth," and it is also up to the defendant to "assert their rights," said Champion.
Henning said he takes seriously "any claim" of innocence and he would advise that bail is "only requested" where prosecutors may end up asking that the defendant serve time behind bars.
All the candidates pledged that they would hold police responsible for their actions – such as using lethal violence against a suspect – and to varying degrees they all expressed support for, or openness towards, providing inmates with medical marijuana. Henning said if properly regulated that is "something that could be considered," and McAuliffe spoke favorably about it but said she would want to think about it more.
The Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts on Tuesday endorsed Henning, and the union's president said his "respect and understanding of the dangers public safety professionals face each and every shift is forged from his first-hand experience on the streets with the Gang Unit and the Gun Prosecution Task Force."