Before she broke the cycle in 2010, Stacey Borden had been in and out of prison for nearly 30 years, mostly for drug possession. Often when she’d leave the prison, the correction officers would say to her, “We’ll see you back soon.”
“They would tell me I’d be back in prison like it was nothing. And they were right — I would be back,” Borden said.
The revolving door was at MCI-Framingham, the dilapidated women’s prison that has decayed beyond the point of repair. At 143 years old, it’s the nation’s oldest operating women’s correctional facility. The prison might close by 2024. And the question before the Department of Correction is: Build a new prison, or embrace alternative forms of rehabilitation for a small population of women inmates in Massachusetts — now just under 200?
The DOC has weighed new construction, possibly embarking on a $50 million prison project at the existing prison grounds in Norfolk. A spokesperson for DOC said “no final decisions have been made regarding MCI-Framingham or women’s corrections.” But the issue looms, and women like Borden are watching closely. Will the Commonwealth spend millions to lock up women or invest in addressing the root causes for their imprisonment? It’s a fundamental debate that strikes at the heart of social justice and America’s obsession with incarceration.
“Last time I landed in prison was for identity theft,” said Borden, who grew up in subsidized housing in Dorchester and Roxbury. “I was stealing to feed my addiction and trying to handle my own trauma.” Borden said she had suffered from sexual abuse. “Not one court officer, not one judge, not one probation officer said, ‘What is wrong with you?’ ”
It’s no secret that a large proportion of incarcerated women report suffering traumatic events before prison, such as sexual abuse or domestic violence. Research has shown that between 50 and 90 percent of women in prison have experienced physical or emotional trauma. This staggering data point has led to a longstanding debate around the concept of “trauma-informed” prisons, which is the approach Massachusetts might take with the new or renovated facilities.
And yet, it’s an oxymoron to think of prisons as therapeutic, no matter how new and freshly painted its walls are. Formerly incarcerated women and researchers agree.
“When we hear that the state government wants to build this project, we hear that Massachusetts is committing to incarcerating our daughters, our granddaughters, our nieces. And we cannot accept that,” said Mallory Hanora, the executive director of Families for Justice as Healing in Roxbury, a nonprofit that has led the way in speaking out against the state’s thinking, objecting formally to what they see as the state’s inappropriate requests for proposals for the project. The advocacy work, said Hanora, is informed by local Black and brown women who have felt the direct impact of mass incarceration.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the jail and prison populations have decreased in the Commonwealth. But a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice is sounding the alarm: These steep declines are slowing and the number of incarcerated people is on the rise again. Granted, Massachusetts has had one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation, with an already declining prison population. But the state spends about $55,000 per inmate per year, which is roughly $20,000 more than the average nationwide, according to Vera’s most recent data, from 2015. Here’s another eye-opener: According to recent research by two local criminal justice professors, in 2019 it cost Massachusetts taxpayers a staggering $117,000 annually to incarcerate a woman at MCI-Framingham.
Surely we could do better with that money. After earning a college degree and a master’s in mental health counseling, Borden created New Beginnings Reentry Services, a nonprofit that offers trauma therapy and counseling for women who have left the prison system. Its crown jewel will be a transitional house for 10 women called Kimya’s House, in Dorchester, that Borden plans to launch in April.
Borden’s program represents a path for Massachusetts to prove that there are viable and effective alternatives to prisons. Instead of being behind bars, women can be carefully placed in supportive settings that address their pasts and futures. And there are ways to decarcerate women right now that wouldn’t require a change in the law, only political will, said Hanora. Consider clemency: “There are five women older than 70 years old, 10 women older than 60, and many more who are older than 50,” Hanora said.
One of them is Angelia Jefferson, an MCI-Framingham inmate in her early 50s serving a sentence of life without parole for killing her ex-boyfriend. Angelia’s daughter, Shanita, says her mom, who has already served nearly 30 years, has been a model inmate, taking every advantage offered in prison, such as enrolling in courses and participating in the institution’s dog-training program. “My mother has done everything in her power to rehabilitate herself,” Shanita said. “She could have a job, pay taxes, and contribute the right way versus them having to pay for a cell for her in Framingham.”
When MCI-Framingham opened in 1877, it was lauded among social reformers as exemplary: It had a nursery and a hospital on-site. Massachusetts has another chance to be a corrections leader again, this time by closing MCI-Framingham and engaging in the next chapter of criminal justice reform.
Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.