The Real Cost of Prisons
BU School of Theology and Partakes’ College Behind Bars are sponsoring a talk by Pippin Ross, entitled “Crash Course: A Reporter’s Journey Into Prison.”
Date and Time: Thursday, November 3 at 7:00 PM
Location: Boston University School of Theology, 745 Commonwealth Avenue, 3rd Floor Room 325
An article about presenter, Pippin Ross.
Pippin Ross, former reporter at WFCR talks about her years at Framingham Prison
Former reporter released from MCI-Framingham
By Dan McDonald/Daily News staff
Posted Sep 06, 2009
Doing time in MCI-Framingham may have landed Pippin Ross, who once ran a public radio station in western Massachusetts before she was jailed for multiple drunken driving charges, the biggest scoop of her career: revealing what she refers to as the “beast of the correction system.”
In July 2006, after facing at least four drunken driving counts, Ross was sentenced to serve 2 to 4 years in the state women’s prison in Framingham.
During her stint inside, Ross, then Inmate # 80554, did what came naturally: She culled stories, taking copious notes, documenting everything from the green Jell-O and mystery soup at chow time to the Zen of mopping and sweeping in the morning.
Ross took note of the large number of inmates given psychotropic drug prescriptions , whether they needed them or not.
“Women get put on the drugs right away,” she said. “It’s what I call chemical restraint.”
At least 60 percent of MCI-Framingham’s inmates have open mental health cases, according to the Department of Correction. Ross suggests the number is actually much higher.
In a typed response to Ross’ statements, DOC spokeswoman Diane Wiffin said licensed psychiatrists, psychologists and clinicians are solely responsible for making clinical decisions.
Ross, the inmate, dug for news.
The DOC’s drug vendor is based out of state, says Ross. That is something Ross’ husband, Phil Austin, says many people in the state don’t know, and it’s something that “should make the average taxpayer livid.”
Wiffin says its medical vendor uses the State Office of Pharmacy Services for all medication, as is statewide policy for all agencies.
While behind bars, Ross ruffled feathers, filing a complaint about access to the law library and holding an interview with The Boston Globe. That move, she says, partially contributed to prison officials unfairly scrutinizing her.
She says her cell was often searched and some notes confiscated.
The Department of Correction declined to comment on those assertions, saying it would need a CORI waiver to get into specifics about Ross’ assertions of retaliatory solitary confinement and room searches.
Ross says legal services for the inmates are hard to come by in MCI-Framingham.
In the correction system, Ross notes there is “an ongoing philosophical civil war between those who are compassionate and those who say ‘Let them break rocks.”‘
Wiffin, in response to that statement, says the DOC is committed to re-entry into society as sound public policy which promotes public safety.
When Ross emerged from the Loring Drive prison in March with a deflated ego, the 53-year-old whose resume includes writing for the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, she knew she had a story to tell.
Ross now lives in a sober house in Malden and is writing a book with Austin, 56, of Nantucket, about her experience in prison and in the judicial system.
It’s an experience she labels “exhausting, demoralizing, and scary.”
Having just finished a cup of chai tea in a Somerville cafe Friday, Ross speaks matter-of-factly about her time inside. She does not break eye contact. She does not get emotional.
She calls prison the “epicenter of post-traumatic stress syndrome” and says nearly every woman she encountered in prison had been sexually abused at some point in their lives.
“Many, many women in prison are there because of a horrible experience that drove them to the edge. All of a sudden … the controls get lifted,” she said.
Prison is almost always the result of a twisted assortment of factors, says Ross, who originally hails from Fitchburg.
“Terrible public education, no affordable housing, and no access to help,” she said.
But Ross appears to buck such a criteria.
Educated at Dana Hall School in Wellesley before attending UMass-Amherst to study broadcast journalism, Ross was the news director for the National Public Radio affiliate in Amherst WFCR from 1986 to 1996.
She continued to be linked to NPR in some form until 2004.
Her decade-plus course in hard knocks began years earlier.
While alcoholism “was always there lurking,” things really fell apart, she says, when she was sexually-assaulted while she was working on an investigative story in the late 1990s.
Ross racked up four charges of driving under the influence of alcohol in a 2-year span, ending in the earlier half of the decade.
In 2004 she was sent to McLean Hospital in Belmont to get sober. Her stint was short-lived. Five days into her stay she shared a vodka nip with a fellow patient and was asked to leave. That development was probably a moot point. She says she couldn’t afford the $450 per day cost her insurance did not cover. Not paying for the stay meant a probation violation and she was sent back to court.
In February 2005, she was sentenced to a year in jail and ultimately landed in the Western Massachusetts Correctional Center on Howard Street in Springfield.
“It was my ashram. My on-the-taxpayer’s Betty Ford clinic ,” said Ross.
Three days before she was scheduled to be released, however, she was indicted for altering a court document by changing the number of drunken driving charges she had on a court document.
Ross says the count would not have affected her jail sentence and that it was a paperwork snafu; she said she had simply tried to make a minor correction to court documents.
The court thought she was trying to fudge documents to get out early.
Her attorney had a blunt assessment of the situation: “You’re smoked,” he told her.
She fought the charge of “before the fact aiding an attempted escape,” for nine months before succumbing to her attorney’s pressure, pleading out in July 2006. She was sent east, to Framingham where she was imprisoned until March.
She married Austin, a novelist with four published books under his belt, last April, two weeks after she was released from prison. The two, who first met as part of a theater production 27 years ago, corresponded while she was in jail starting in January 2007.
Ross, who has a 20-year-old son, is on both parole and probation. She is scheduled to get out of the sober house in December, but might be released sooner.
She has one article due to come out in the September issue of Shambhala Sun Magazine, an upscale meditation magazine, about teaching yoga in prison. She said she also is working on other freelance assignments.
The book project is nearly done and the couple is shopping the manuscript, which has a tentative title of “Crash Test Dummies.”
Reflecting on her prison stint, Ross tries to pull something positive out of her story.
She said, “It showed me how astronomically precious life is.”