Report backs smaller women’s prison to replace MCI-Framingham
Recommendation collides with anti-prison push in Legislature
MASSACHUSETTS IS MOVING forward with plans to study replacing the MCI-Framingham women’s prison after a report issued by an independent consultant recommended moving the female inmates to a new facility with a smaller footprint and a greater focus on rehabilitation.
MCI-Framingham today “is oversized, physically outdated for its rehabilitative mission, and requires significant capital investment,” according to a report issued Tuesday by The Ripples Group. The report was commissioned by the state agency that oversees public buildings.
Public Safety Secretary Terrence Reidy and Correction Commissioner Carol Mici responded to the report in a letter to the commissioner of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance saying that correction officials agree a new facility is needed. “The Ripples Group found that MCI-Framingham is unable to fully meet the needs of women not only due to the facility’s physical condition but also a layout that is not conducive to a rehabilitative environment. The Department agrees with this assessment,” Reidy and Mici wrote.
The 88-page report stops short of recommending a specific location and facility design, which it sees as a next step, but it outlines a broad strategy for revamping the state’s approach toward incarcerating women – what the report calls “a substantial transformation in terms of facilities, operations, and culture.” This includes a smaller building with much more extensive programming.
The state has commissioned HDR Architecture to create a plan for a “reimagined correctional center for women” by exploring renovations to existing correctional sites in Framingham and Norfolk. The project is estimated to cost $40 million.
But the plans are bumping up against significant opposition from both the Democratic-led Legislature and prisoners’ rights advocates who oppose the construction of a new prison. Both the House and Senate have passed bills that would impose a five-year moratorium on the construction of new prisons, though a final version has not yet made it to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.
Several lawmakers who sponsored the prison moratorium bills and comprise the Legislature’s criminal justice reform caucus said in statements that they disagree with the report’s recommendation for a new facility, arguing that a new building will mean more incarceration.
“While I appreciate the dedicated work of The Ripples Group on developing a strategic plan for incarcerated women in Massachusetts, I strongly disagree with the report’s recommendation to build a new medium security prison for women,” said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat and the Senate chair of the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. “Calling a prison a ‘rehabilitation center’ doesn’t change that proposed facility from being a place of confinement, trauma, and massive power imbalance between the state and incarcerated people.”
Eldridge suggested MCI-Framingham be closed and the money be used to provide housing, training, and reentry support for formerly incarcerated people.
As the trend nationally and in Massachusetts has moved away from “tough on crime” policies and toward rehabilitation, and as pre-trial women have increasingly been transferred from state to county custody, that has significantly reduced the state prison population. The number of women in state custody dropped from around 840 at its peak in 2007 to 160 in spring 2021. MCI-Framingham has a current capacity to hold nearly 500 women.
In April 2021, 71 women in state custody had been convicted of murder. Seventy percent of the women were incarcerated for violent crimes. Three-quarters of the women had children, and 70 percent had a mental health issue.
The layout is also not conducive to running an efficient operation. As of April 2021, there were 163 correctional officers, an almost one to one ratio with inmates, and 300 total staff, which the report said was “symptomatic of the scale and complexity of the MCI-Framingham campus.” The annual expense for incarcerating a woman at MCI-Framingham was $162,000 in 2020, largely due to its scale and layout.
“There is almost universal consensus that MCI-Framingham as a facility has surpassed the end of its life and requires major campus reconfiguration to serve its rehabilitative mission,” the report wrote.
The report found that participation in programming now is uneven, particularly since COVID-19 ended volunteer-run programs. There are very limited resources to help women upon release.
The main recommendations of the report are for a smaller facility, more programming, and an improved focus on rehabilitation.
The report estimates that any future facility should be built to accommodate 175 women in state custody, of whom 25 to 50 could be in minimum security facilities. It envisions a main medium security rehabilitation center, with the ability to transfer women to three minimum security facilities, or pre-release centers, around the state that work in partnership with community providers.
The facilities envisioned by the Ripples Group would offer additional programming focused on life and vocational skills and mental health or substance use treatment. The rehabilitation center would have a college-campus feel with small residential units with single bedrooms and private bathrooms. There would be shared spaces for health care, educational programming, and outdoor recreation. The report envisions family visitation rooms, a modern library and computer lab, vocational training spaces, a store, a mental health unit, and a location accessible via public transportation. The pre-release centers would be small with single rooms, kitchens, and access to work-release programs.
Programming would include work with higher wages (now prisoners are paid $3 to $5 per week) and classes on skills like food shopping or maintaining a bank account. Fees would be low on phone calls and emails. Staff, who should be primarily female, would be retrained to focus on “soft skills” like communication not just security.
The report notes that a change of this magnitude will be challenging, with internal resistance and a likely political outcry if something goes wrong. It recommended making some immediate changes – small things like replacing mattresses, improving food options, and adding programs for pre-trial women – then spending a year planning and three to four years building and implementing the shift, realistically by 2026.Reidy and Mici, in their response, cited programs and positive initiatives that were mentioned in the report and wrote that the department “continuously reviews and improves its policies and practices to align with evolving 21st century correctional sensibilities and we are proud of the many innovations implemented by the department.”
The two officials said the Correction Department is working on providing tablets to incarcerated women, expanding vocational training to include coding and building trades, and developing more opportunities for children to visit incarcerated mothers.