A new women’s prison would be a mistake
Invest instead in dealing with root causes of incarceration
THE MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION announced recently that it will suspend operations at Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Shirley and South Middlesex Correctional Center in the wake of high rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Massachusetts prisons and the ongoing decline in prisoner populations in the state. This announcement follows on the heels of last year’s announcement regarding plans to consider closing MCI-Framingham, the prison currently housing approximately 150 to 200 women.
As experts in the fields of law, policy, and women’s health, we would welcome the closure of MCI-Framingham — the site of decades of suffering for Massachusetts women. However, we are concerned that rather than looking for ways to release women to home confinement (as is the current plan for the Shirley and South Middlesex closings), Gov. Baker and his administration are looking to build a new women’s prison with a proposed price tag of $50 million.
Although the proposal for a new prison recognizes the desperate need to address long overlooked experiences of women who face incarceration in Massachusetts, ultimately it is a misdirected spending of state resources.
A large majority of incarcerated women live with physical and mental health challenges, often in the wake of poverty, homelessness, and abuse or assault by family members, intimate partners, and strangers. The (limited) information coming from the Baker administration promotes the idea that the new prison will serve therapeutic purposes for these women. However, there is no evidence to show that treatment is effective within the coercive context of prison.
In a thoroughly researched report, the US Department of Justice recently found that Massachusetts actually violates the constitutional rights of incarcerated people requiring mental health treatment. Prison conditions, including lack of privacy, imposed close physical contact with strangers, threats of violence, and vulnerability to assault and harassment, are especially harmful for women who have experienced abuse and trauma.
The ongoing lack of transparency in plans for the new women’s prison is further evidence that the Baker administration should not be entrusted with the millions of dollars that it will borrow or request for this project. Neither women who have experienced incarceration nor researchers, scholars, or legislators who have studied the challenges faced by incarcerated women have been called on to envision options other than replacing one prison with another after the state closes MCI-Framingham.
Instead, as a first step in this process, the Baker administration invited architectural firms to bid on a $500,000 contract to study the needs of incarcerated women. This all but guarantees that funding will be used for a new building.
Over the past decade there has been a steady decline in the number of women incarcerated in Massachusetts. Rather than spending taxpayer money on a prison construction, the judicial, executive, and legislative branches should work to further reduce the number of women in prison by fully implementing the Primary Caretakers Act, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences that give prosecutors too much leverage, making greater use of compassionate release for elderly and terminally ill people, and commuting sentences or granting clemency for women convicted of violent acts against abusive intimate partners. The small number of women remaining could serve their time in designated units in existing facilities that are not currently operating at full capacity.
With the possible closure of MCI-Framingham, Massachusetts has an opportunity to change the way it treats women. According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, it cost $117,109 to incarcerate just one woman for one year at MCI-Framingham in fiscal year 2019. For a quarter of that sum, a woman can be provided with housing, childcare support, and other practical assistance that will help her stay out of the correctional system. Rather than spending tens of millions on a new prison, the Commonwealth should invest in women’s health, healthy families, and healthy communities — investments that are proven to reduce the root causes of incarceration.When MCI-Framingham was opened in 1877 it was only the second prison in the country designed solely for women. Over its long history it has been led by many stalwart reformers — including Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross. In the closure of MCI-Framingham, Massachusetts has an opportunity to reclaim its position of innovation and leadership. Formerly incarcerated women are already leading the way by challenging this and other plans for new prisons. It’s time to invest in people, not in prisons, to truly address the problems faced by Massachusetts women.
Susan Sered is a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Suffolk University. Erin Braatz is an assistant professor at Suffolk University Law School.