BOSTON — District attorneys are usually the ones asking the questions of those who run afoul of the law: Where were you on this night? Why did you do it? Do you feel remorse?
But the tables were turned on Tuesday at a rather unusual candidate debate for six people campaigning to become Boston’s chief prosecutor. The scene was a county jail and the interrogators were inmates in prison garb — soft cotton scrubs, some blue, some brown, some orange, depending on the status of their cases.
Their questions for the prospective prosecutors showed insider knowledge of the criminal justice system: Why is there so much pressure on inmates to take plea bargains rather than go to trial? Should undocumented women be deported if they are convicted of nonviolent crimes? With the rise in geriatric inmates, do you support medical marijuana in jail?
Sitting just a few feet from the candidates, relieved of handcuffs or other restraints, the inmates listened intently as candidates sought to portray themselves as fair-minded. And when it was over, those on the inside were thrilled to have participated in this ritual of democracy.
“I hope our voices are heard,” said Eric Miller, 46, who is accused of possession of a firearm. He asked the candidates about justice and said afterward that misfortune was to blame for many of the charges the inmates faced.
Ashley McSween, 32, who is being held on larceny charges, asked about how best to help women inmates who are addicted to opioids re-enter society. “Getting the answers straight from them was A-plus,” she said.
The debate, held at the Suffolk County House of Correction, was organized by the American Civil Liberties Union and the local sheriff’s department. It was billed as the first political debate in the country to take place inside a jail. On the receiving end of the grilling were five Democrats and one independent seeking to become the next district attorney for Suffolk County, which covers Boston and three surrounding communities.
For the A.C.L.U., the event was designed to shine a light on the job of district attorney, one frequently in national headlines because of police shootings, an exploding drug crisis and the swelling activism of groups like Black Lives Matter.
“This forum happening in a city jail in front of people who are incarcerated represents the growing focus nationwide on holding prosecutors accountable,” said Udi Ofer, a lawyer and deputy national political director of the A.C.L.U.
The A.C.L.U. is advocating criminal justice reforms in district attorney races in 15 states. It was hosting another debate on Tuesday in St. Louis County, Mo., the jurisdiction of Ferguson, where Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in 2014. Prosecutors declined to file charges against the officer.
“Prosecutors are the most powerful, unaccountable and least transparent actors in the criminal justice system,” Mr. Ofer said. “They exercise tremendous discretion and have enormous power — they decide who to charge, what kind of charges to bring, what plea deals to offer.”
As with many political races around the country this year, this one has drawn a surprisingly crowded field. The current district attorney, Daniel F. Conley, who is not seeking re-election, was first elected in 2002 and then re-elected without opposition for three more terms.
In the last 20 years, more than three-fourths of the district attorney races in Massachusetts have been uncontested.
Many of this year’s district attorney candidates, here and elsewhere, have a liberal agenda. Some were inspired by the landslide election last year in Philadelphia of a longtime civil rights lawyer, Lawrence Krasner, who had no background as a prosecutor and promised a total overhaul of the system.
Steven Tompkins, the Suffolk County sheriff, said Tuesday’s debate was an extension of his efforts to engage the inmates in civic discourse. Of the 1,000 inmates in the house of correction, he said as the debate opened, 42 percent have some form of mental illness and 70 percent have an alcohol or drug problem.
“These are folks who should be somewhere else,” he said. If inmates were committing crimes to feed the illness of addiction, he added, the system needed to reconsider how it treated them.
The inmates who attended the debate volunteered to do so. The men and women were separated, with 14 men on one side of an ordinary, low-ceilinged meeting room with fluorescent lights, and 11 women on the other. All are registered to vote.
Most of the candidates sought to relate their life experiences to those of the inmates — not the sort of candidate response one would hear if such a debate were held at the chamber of commerce.
“I look out at all of you and understand the dilemmas you face,” said Linda Champion, a lawyer, who described herself as a formerly homeless teenager who struggled through life with an immigrant mother who had been abused by her father.
Rachael Rollins, a lawyer, said that she was the oldest of five and that three of her siblings had been in prison. “I don’t look at you as defendants, like some up here,” she said, adding that she had received a call that morning telling her that a cousin had died of an overdose.
Evandro Carvalho, a state representative, said he was arrested at age 17 and had a criminal record. He thanked God for helping him find his way and concluded by asking the inmates, “When will you have another opportunity to elect someone that has these experiences?”
By: Katharine Q. Seelye