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When MCI-Framingham (MCI-F), the sole women’s prison in Massachusetts and the oldest operating women’s prison in the country, was established in 1877 as the Sherborn Reformatory for Women, it was a radical experiment in meeting the needs of incarcerated women. The prison was meant to better serve women who at the time, were imprisoned in the same facilities as men. Designed as cottages, replete with more domestic spaces such as kitchens and living rooms, the prison was meant to protect incarcerated women against gender violence in the co-ed prisons of the time. While ideas about “gender-responsive” corrections and carceral projects designed to meet the unique needs of women have become more mainstream in recent years, MCI-F’s history is a reminder that this approach has existed for centuries. More pressingly, the facility’s current condition and the state’s proposed attempt to address them reflect the shortcomings of “gender-responsive” prisons and the failure of feminism to sufficiently challenge the carceral system itself. 

MCI-F currently incarcerates roughly 200 women, a dramatic decline from previous years—Massachusetts boasts the lowest incarceration rate for women in the U.S. However, Prison Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLS), a legal clinic that challenges the carceral system and inhumane conditions of confinement through litigation, advocacy, and counseling to incarcerated and directly impacted clients, released a report earlier this summer that illuminates the sexual violence that incarcerated women in MCI-F must routinely endure. 

The report’s findings—based on interviews and surveys with over 20 incarcerated women at MCI-F—speak to both explicitly violent incidents of sexual harassment, assault, and coercion and the systemic violence inherent in prison and jails that subjects women to even more trauma and abuse at the hands of staff who enjoy relative impunity. The report also included expansive recommendations for structural reforms and commitments to moving away from incarceration altogether, solutions that advocates say could succeed as MCI-F’s population has decreased by 75% over the past several years, and there’s growing support for state legislation that would halt new prison and jail construction.

However, the state’s response to these problems doubles down on its reliance on the same system that created them in the first place—Massachusetts is currently considering making a $50 million investment in the construction of a new women’s prison.

For many advocates, this proposal is more evidence that reforms are ultimately ineffective because prisons themselves are the root of the problem. In an interview with Prism, Sarah Nawab, who authored the report, says that prisons are inextricably tied to the same oppressive systems that create the conditions for gender-based violence to begin with. In other words, even “gender-responsive” corrections facilities won’t address or prevent those harms because the very nature of prisons means they’ll end up compounding that harm.

“Issues of being stripped, searched, being monitored in the shower-–regardless of the gender of the person doing [those things] it is still incredibly traumatic and is going to re-traumatize and trigger folks who are disproportionately survivors of sexual and domestic violence,” Nawab said.

“Rebranding the system only entrenches it further”

This past June, just weeks before the release of PLS’s report, Boston-based management consulting firm The Ripples Group released A Strategic Plan for Women who are Incarcerated in Massachusetts. Commissioned by the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM), the report outlines the structural inadequacies of MCI-F and estimates that an overhaul of the existing facility would cost roughly $80 million. The report proposes the construction of a new prison that could be a “nurturing environment that enables healing, personal growth, and connections” that focuses on rehabilitation, reentry services, and leaving a smaller footprint to align with the reduced population. 

While those goals technically align with the recommendations offered by the PLS report, their intended impacts are ultimately opposed—the recommendations are meant as an avenue towards decarceration, while the Ripples Group report nestles theirs in plans that would only strengthen the state’s carceral system. 

Even more frustrating to advocates, Ripples Group’s plan uses abolitionist language in its proposal to build another prison. Opening with a quote from Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem “The Hill We Climb,” the plan ultimately describes their proposed facility as a “holistic milieu”  and a “trauma-informed healing and transformative environment” where “self-value” is enhanced in part through the use of person-first language by staff. This appropriation of abolitionist rhetoric to justify the construction of more carceral facilities is something that advocates have learned to anticipate.

“[Ripple Group] outlined that this report was going to be a signed permission slip for the DOC to do whatever they want,” said Mallory Hanora, executive director for the Roxbury-based group Families for Justice as Healing. “So a lot of our on-the-ground organizing has been targeting architecture firms to say there is no such thing as a trauma-informed prison. This was just an example of the carceral state really trying to morph and change to protect its hold on our people and control of our resources.” 

Hanora cites Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins’s announcement last year that he would convert a wing of the county jail into a drug treatment center as another example of how the carceral state uses claims that it can do things “more humanely” as a means to preserve itself. 

“We’re saying absolutely not—forced treatment is not treatment,” said Hanora. “There’s no such thing as a feminist jail.”

Massachusetts groups like Families for Justice As Healing within the Building Up People, Not Prisons campaign are not alone in pushing back against the idea of “feminist jails and prisons.” In cities from Austin, Texas to New York City, “gender-responsive” facility proposals have come back into vogue in recent decades, arguing that because women have different pathways into and experiences inside prison, the prisons and jails themselves ought to be structured in unique ways. However, advocates within Building Up People, Not Prisons counter that because prison itself is inherently violent, reforming prison designs and practices isn’t actually helpful—essentially, re-branding the system only further entrenches it, ultimately to the detriment of currently incarcerated women and women who will be swept up into the system in the future.   

Successes and setbacks

In addition to advocating against the construction of a new facility to replace MCI-F, Massachusetts advocates have also leveled a legislative campaign to support a bill that would halt new prison and jail construction for the next five years. 

In 2019, organizers got a whiff of plans to close MCI-F and open a new women’s prison after officials abruptly transferred the women incarcerated at MC-F to Boston’s Suffolk County House of Correction. The women who were moved to Suffolk shared complaints about phones not working in certain units, water not working, property destruction or loss during the transfer, the interruption of healthcare services and access to medication that they received while at Framingham, and longer periods of daily lockdown.

“This move totally upended women’s lives,” said Hanora. “Their families weren’t notified and it was done in a crisis and chaos. We raised the red flag and said, ‘Why did this happen without the consultation of the community? Why didn’t we talk about what else was possible for women except shuffling them from a state prison to a county jail? What else is possible? Why are we continuing to hold women in pretrial detention at all?’”

While Suffolk County Sheriff Tompkins denied plans to construct a new facility, Mallory says that just two months later, the first Request for Proposals (RFP) was released to study and design the replacement for MCI-F. Formerly incarcerated women immediately began organizing, placing public pressure, and having private meetings with three architecture firms leveraging their wisdom, expertise and lived experience to illuminate how constructing a new prison wasn’t a real solution to the problems incarcerated women faced. 

State-level organizing by the group included zealously attending designer selection board hearings to press the point that the project would only create new harms instead of redressing existing problems with MCI-F. However, after two successful challenges to DCAMM’s RFP process, the Commonwealth hired HDR Inc., an architectural firm that has designed 275 jails and prisons across the country and has been the target of abolitionist campaigns for years. 

“When [HDR was] first hired, we led a couple [of] months of weekly protests outside their office, and we fliered all of downtown Boston to let people know that this was happening,” said Hanora. “That’s when we knew we needed another layer of challenge so we drafted the jail and prison construction moratorium bill.”

The legislation, which was filed in early 2021, will place a moratorium on any new jail or prison construction in Massachusetts for the next five years. Hanora says that even in Massachusetts, where legislation moves notoriously slow, the coalition was able to coordinate hours of public testimony at two separate hearings, knock on 4,000 doors, and make 9,000 calls statewide. She describes the campaign as a “people-powered effort fueled by volunteers and entirely led by formerly incarcerated women.” 

Despite the overwhelming support for the legislation both amongst state electeds in the state House and Senate, and even more importantly, community members, Governor Baker vetoed it. While the legislative session has ended, organizers haven’t stopped campaigning because there is still an opportunity for the legislature to call a special session, and with a two-thirds vote in each chamber they can override Bakers’ veto. Most recently, the FreeHer coalition held a 5K run in support of the moratorium, sending the message to the legislature that it’s on them to push the bill past the finish line. 

“Shame on us if we cannot use the hundreds of millions of dollars that we spend every year on jails and prisons,” Hanora said. “The total is actually $1.6 billion that Massachusetts spends on jails, prisons, probation, and parole. If we can’t use those resources to do better for women and families—that’s what we’re fighting for.”

Reimagining Communities

When asked about what alternatives to incarceration would be, advocates are quick to explain that they already exist and are being refined every day, particularly on the neighborhood level. Such initiatives both support formerly incarcerated people navigating structural barriers that often lead to recidivism and actively redress harm in non-carceral ways when it does occur. 

“You might hear from other criminal legal organizations and their attempts to reimagine public safety or reimagine prisons or reimagine policing [but] we don’t believe that those systems can be reimagined,” said Hanora. “We need to dismantle them and create [something different] instead. We call that reimagining communities.”  

The Reimagining Communities projects coming out of Families for Justice As Healing include the establishment of the Community Love Fund, a year-long guaranteed income initiative that distributes recurring, direct cash relief to five formerly incarcerated and directly impacted women from Roxbury and operating Participatory Defense programs. The loved ones of people facing charges are trained to serve as an extension of their defense team, learning how to read case files, analyze police reports and case transcripts, develop mitigation materials, and support their loved ones during court appearances. Other projects include weekly meetings around transformative justice led by formerly incarcerated women, youth employment for young girls, operating a community pantry, and developing a Roxbury-based hydroponic farm. 

Another program highlighted in PLS’s report was Justice 4 Housing (J4H), a grassroots organization serving Boston’s historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods by providing housing support to those returning home. Founder Leslie Credle was formerly incarcerated herself and after conducting listening tours with other formerly incarcerated women, identified lack of access to housing as the primary barrier to successful re-entry. Now J4H helps draft and support legislation—including the prison and jail moratorium—and provides direct services to increase housing stability amongst those who the system has impacted. Direct services created by J4H include their Hands On Defense program, in which directly impacted community members who are facing eviction or denials from public housing authorities can present their case to the J4H team during one of their weekly meetings. From there, J4H and allies work together and strategize a defense on their behalf. According to Credle, Hands On Defense has had a 98% success rate at the appellate stage.

Other Boston-based programs developed by formerly incarcerated women mentioned in PLS’s report include New Beginnings Reentry Services, a grassroots organization aimed at reducing recidivism by providing practical assistance to women as they return home, and the Massachusetts Bail Fund.

These organizations and initiatives are borne out of the experiences and leadership of formerly incarcerated women and have gained traction among community members. By offering public education about life inside and asking community members what changes they’d like to see, advocates are providing a pathway for more people to understand how lives and potential futures are deeply impacted by incarceration. And critically, the conditions created by Massachusetts’ relatively low population of incarcerated women mean that implementing these non-carceral-based programs in tandem with targeted legislative interventions could ensure that women currently incarcerated in the commonwealth can return home immediately.

Hanora notes that these types of visionary projects can and should also work in tandem with efforts to decarcerate MCI-F. Hanora says existing legislative interventions such as granting clemency and parole could be used to bring almost every woman incarcerated at the prison home. Medical parole is a particularly useful intervention that could aid in the release of the prison’s elderly population—at least seven women are in their 70s.  

“When we bring this up with people, they’re like, what are we really doing out here?” Hanora said. “We are incarcerating grandmothers in their 70s who cannot even walk? Who has mobility aids and colostomy bags and forms of cancer and dementia? These are the very real conditions that our sisters inside are struggling with, and we know them by name.”

PLS’s report similarly outlines non-carceral alternatives at every stage, from before a law is broken to incarceration, that can either be enacted or strengthened in order to permanently shift the commonwealth away from incarceration. Existing policies like community-based sentencing and record expungement could also be bolstered. And finally, the creation of and investment in programs that treat racism as public health crises and remove police from schools could also move communities further away from relying on incarceration and policing to everyone’s benefit.

Through the report, Nawab has been able to point people toward existing community structures that are already doing work to redress harm, hopefully quelling the feelings of overwhelm and skepticism around what will take the place of the carceral system as pressure mounts to decarcerate and end new prison construction. Inevitably in tearing down the carceral system, an alternative framework must emerge in its stead. Nawab says that committing to a new way of being requires a fundamental shift in how we think about the purpose of prisons in the first place. 

“I think one of the key gaps in people’s understanding of these issues goes back to our understanding of prisons because we see them as a solution, but currently an imperfect solution that’s broken and in need of fixing and not as the problem that it is,” Nawab said. “To me, the solution lies in communities.”

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.