A new women’s prison is not the answer

State must embrace non-carceral approaches to rehabilitation

LAST MONTH, three days before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, women in Massachusetts lost another opportunity for bodily autonomy and personal dignity when the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) released a “Strategic Plan for Women Incarcerated in Massachusetts,” commissioned for $225,000 from the Ripples Group, a “boutique management consulting firm.”

The strategic plan is far from the paradigm shift many Massachusetts women and families were hoping for when the DOC announced that MCI-Framingham, the state prison for women, was slated to be closed. Although the plan promotes itself as “visionary, future-looking,” it boils down to building a new 150-bed medium security prison (the approximate number of women currently incarcerated in MCI-Framingham) along with “minimum security facilities in partnership with established community providers and with sheriffs, as exists today.” Basically, moving women from one prison to another. DOC’s estimated cost: $40 million for the initial build; countless additional taxpayer dollars to run going forward.

The strategic plan acknowledges that the majority of incarcerated women have experienced violence throughout their lives, and that experiences of assault and abuse often are central to their path to prison. Rather than addressing the realities of gender-based violence however, the plan centers on rehabilitating women. Rehabilitation is described as “[d]eveloping the self-esteem of the women and providing them with a dignified experience … helping the women heal, begin the process to overcome their trauma and health challenges, and learn skills for a fair chance at being capable members of their families and communities.”

This model of “rehabilitation” rests on the assumption that the individual has a pathology (“criminal thinking”) that can be “cured” through incarceration. Outdated and ineffective, the rehabilitation model gives little or no heed to the damning and dangerous circumstances–domestic violence, homelessness, racism, gender inequality, poverty, despair, drug use (often to numb mental or physical pain), mental illness, and the impact of specific laws and models of policing on arrest rates–that make women vulnerable to incarceration. Used uncritically in the strategic plan, the rehabilitation model ignores these most significant reasons for women’s involvement in the criminal legal system, seeking instead to fund prisons that will “heal” women – as if involvement in the criminal legal system is primarily an individual, voluntary act that can be avoided with “right” thinking.

The strategic plan revolves around incarcerated women’s trauma, thus we are particularly concerned the plan does not mention known trauma-inducing correctional practices such as solitary confinement or take steps to reduce or eliminate the use of demeaning and traumatizing strip searches. The pervasive dehumanization and powerlessness that women experience behind bars trigger previous trauma at the same time that they produce new harm. Loss of bodily autonomy and separation from family and friends reinforce the suffering that brings women into the criminal legal system to begin with. Prison is never a “dignified experience.”

The empirical and scholarly bases for the strategic plan are problematic throughout. Consider this dismissal of research findings: “Not surprisingly, some macro studies have concluded that prisons by their nature increase trauma rather than address it…. But this is not an excuse to exclude trauma-informed approaches.” This is simply wrong. In fact, trauma-informed approaches, though usually well-intended, cannot nullify the trauma of incarceration and do not have lasting benefits. Women return to the same world that harmed them to begin with, now saddled with a prison record that makes it even harder to find employment and obtain secure housing.

A truly innovative strategic plan would not promote a prison calling itself a “rehabilitation center” but rather look at non-traumatizing, non-carceral ways to support women struggling with health and other challenges. Research by members of the Women and Incarceration Project at Suffolk University shows that most, if not all, women incarcerated in Massachusetts at MCI-Framingham and in county jails can be released under existing legal options. The relatively small number of incarcerated women (50 or fewer) in the Commonwealth who cannot be released quickly can be housed through community-based and community-controlled options that best meet their needs and those of their families and communities.

Perhaps it was naive to think that a strategic plan paid for by the Department of Correction and the Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance would shift Massachusetts away from jails and prisons for women. For those of us working toward decarceration rather than a “kinder” version of what exists now, we must commit ourselves to investing in policies that reduce violence and despair, not in building yet another prison for women.

Susan Sered is a professor sociology and criminal justice at Suffolk University.