Valley social justice groups land funding for efforts to help incarcerated people, those seeking asylum

Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction.

Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction. file photo

By Alexa Lewis

Staff Writer

Published: 06-20-2024 3:42 PM

Three Pioneer Valley social justice organizations have been awarded funding to expand their missions that range from seeking the release of incarcerated people to helping individuals undergoing asylum cases.

The Decarcerate Western Massachusetts Bailout Project, Western Massachusetts Asylum Support Network, and Whose Corner is it Anyway? will receive portions of $92,000 awarded by the Peace Development Fund to grassroots organizations nationally and locally.

The Decarcerate Western Massachusetts Bailout Project, based in Easthampton, is part of the larger Decarcerate Western Massachusetts organization — a coalition of people and organizations focused on supporting incarcerated people and getting them released.

The Bailout Project, which is entirely volunteer-based, posts bail in the Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire county jails, and has bailed out over 120 people since their founding in 2021. They also supported protestors participating in the recent pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst by contributing bail money.

The Bailout Project also works on educational outreach, which it hopes to expand with this new grant funding.

“We want to start a participatory defense hub with this grant, as part of our community education,” said Danielle Squillante, a volunteer with the Bailout Project. “We’ll reach out to families whose loved ones have open cases, and empower them by pooling knowledge. ... It’s about making sure that those directly affected have all of the information they need about the process and what they can do.”

The Western Massachusetts Asylum Support Network, based in Amherst, has two plans for its new grant funding: housing support and starting a pro se project.

The network supports individuals undergoing asylum cases by providing guidance, housing, transportation, resources, and more. However, providing housing support poses challenges due to a statewide housing shortage and high property values.

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“We want to use this funding to support our efforts in helping people find housing,” said Elliot Oberholtzer, a volunteer with the network. “It will also help us in finding more individuals to offer sponsorship, and welcome [asylum seekers] into their homes.”

The network also hopes to use its new funding to get a pro se program off the ground.

“Pro se means ‘on one’s own behalf,’” explained Oberholtzer. “There’s a shortage of immigration attorneys in the area, and especially affordable ones. This program would allow us to educate individuals on the legal process so they don’t have to undergo the long wait times for counsel… It will teach individuals to navigate the process without an attorney.”

Holyoke-based Whose Corner Is It Anyway? is a mutual aid organization that works toward harm reduction, political education, and more. They also organize groups run by and for stimulant and opioid using, low-income, and street-based sex workers.

“Our current programming focuses on our drop-in hours, providing harm reduction [and] reproductive health [and] hygiene supply distribution, low threshold employment, and safer bathroom programming for our community,” said Caty Simon, development director for Whose Corner Is It Anyway? “We’re excited to expand our partnership with the Baystate ED research team to provide more sex worker harm reduction trainings.”