In the summer of 2010, the women at Danbury federal prison in Connecticut analyzed their plight. They pored over “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book on mass incarceration, and tuned into reports on their transistor radios about the for-profit prison industry. They created timelines of the lobbying and laws that led to a massive spike in the rate of Black people being incarcerated over the last three decades. They were building on the work of generations of women organizing behind bars.
Then, they vowed to end the incarceration of women and girls across the country, creating an organization called Families for Justice as Healing. And they decided to make New England ground zero. It was a logical place to begin the daunting task, since New England states have some of the lowest rates of women’s incarceration in the country.
Their fight is now playing out in Massachusetts, where a group of activists and lawmakers are challenging the construction of a women’s prison in Norfolk, arguing it will have disastrous consequences for poor and Black communities for decades to come. Over the past year, Families for Justice as Healing has twice derailed the state’s efforts to move forward with the plan, filing formal complaints over a lack of transparency.
But the state appears to be pressing ahead anyway, recently putting out a third bid and selecting an architecture firm to study and design a new women’s correctional facility. The price tag would be $20 million to $40 million, according to the bid request from January.
“It’s been a longtime goal . . . to have a facility that is more conducive for the females that we have in our custody, to really look at trauma-informed care,” a Department of Correction official told the state selection board in February, according to Commonwealth Magazine.
Formerly incarcerated people, as well as some researchers and lawmakers, say the money could be better spent elsewhere.
“When you talk about building a new women’s prison, you’re talking about our children,” said Andrea James, who was sentenced to two years for wire fraud at Danbury, and founded Families for Justice as Healing there. James, also the executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, is leading the charge to stop the prison construction and invest the money in community-based alternatives.
A new prison would replace the crumbling women’s prison at MCI-Framingham, the second-oldest women’s correctional facility in the country. Currently, fewer than 200 womenare incarcerated in the state — the lowest rate per 100,000 women in the country, according to The Sentencing Project.
State officials did not directly respond to advocates’ concerns in statements to the Globe. A spokesman for the Department of Correction said “no final decisions have been made regarding MCI-Framingham or women’s corrections,” though state officials have said in the past that they plan to close the facility and transfer women to a new or renovated prison on the grounds of Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk. (Currently, Bay State houses administrative offices.)
Some state lawmakers have joined the effort to stop the prison plan. In February, Representative Chynah Tyler and Senator Jo Comerford introduced a bill that would ban designing, expanding, or repairing correctional facilities beyond basic maintenance for the next five years.
“The current plan for a new women’s prison at Norfolk is not so very far along,” Comerford said during a virtual legislative briefing, noting that blueprints haven’t been drawn up and construction hasn’t begun. “Swift passage of this bill could help interrupt the construction.”
Research shows that women who are incarcerated face an array of challenges before arriving in prison: The vast majority are poor and incarcerated for nonviolent drug or property crimes, according to federal data. Most have experienced physical or sexual violence.
HDR Architecture, the firm selected to design the new prison, appeared to draw on that research when touting its experience with “trauma-informed design.”
“As most inmates who enter the jail have suffered some form of trauma in their past, an environment with natural light, access to views of nature, normalized furnishings and finishes, in addition to soothing colors can help reduce anxiety, fear, anger, and depression,” the proposal said about a correctional facility HDR designed in Ohio, a design the Massachusetts facility would presumably emulate. A spokesperson from the firm declined to comment.
But advocates and researchers fundamentally disagree with the premise of a “trauma-informed” prison.
“I don’t think that prison is a place that anybody is going to heal from trauma. Prison in and of itself is traumatizing,” said Susan Sered, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Suffolk University who has spoken out against the new prison.
Sered conducted a literature review on 16 years of research about therapeutic interventions in prison and found no evidence that mental health or trauma treatment in prison had sustained benefits outside. That’s because the realities of incarceration — being under constant observation, the ever present threat of punishment, not being able to choose what to eat or when to shower or when to see a doctor, being separated from your children — are not conducive to trauma treatment, Sered said.
Advocates and researchers also say that a new women’s prison would affect generations of families, because women are disproportionately likely to be the primary caretakers of their children before being imprisoned, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Andrea James’s daughter, Sashi James, who is now 30, said her mother’s time in prison profoundly affected her. She was in college but dropped out because her family could no longer afford the tuition without her mother’s salary.
“Seeing all the grandmothers in prison and all the other moms and the aunts,” Sashi James said. “It was a wake-up call.”
Families for Justice as Healing is an abolitionist group and believes the millions set aside for a new prison, and for incarcerating women at Framingham, should instead go toward supporting people in their communities with counseling, transitional and affordable housing, and job training.
Instead of investing in a prison, James said, “Why aren’t we a model for the rest of the country?”