In the early 1870s, the Massachusetts Legislature was considering what to do with incarcerated women who were, at the time, scattered across the state in county jails and prisons with men. First the Legislature concluded, “there are enough prisons already; use what exists,” and planned to convert an existing men’s prison into a prison for women. But in their first report to the Commonwealth in 1872, the Commissioners of Prisons questioned, “what else can be done?”
The answer was the construction of a brand new prison for women: MCI-Framingham. The Commissioners of Prisons believed that Massachusetts would “look carefully at things new and old and see to it that her prisons shall be . . . of the very best.”
In 2022, elected and appointed officials in the Commonwealth continue to debate the future of incarceration for women. One hundred-fifty years later, the Department of Correction’s answer is yet again a new women’s prison.
Shame on the leaders whose mind-sets are stuck in the 19th century, when women in prison were braiding whiplashes, and who still refuse to listen to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women — the experts. Shame on those professionals, like the Ripples Group and HDR Inc., who would condemn us to continue repeating our mistakes for another 150 years; condemn still more generations of women to endure the violence, suffering, family separation, and economic devastation caused by incarceration.
The people of Massachusetts must not allow the Commonwealth to build another prison to incarcerate our daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters — women from my community. Because if history repeats itself, these women will be disproportionately Black and brown.
Directly impacted women have a vision of a different way forward and we are already bringing that vision to life. We are on the ground organizing in the most incarcerated corridor in the Commonwealth and building community infrastructure that will allow us to heal from generations of trauma so our families can thrive. Infrastructure like the hydroponic farm we are opening in Roxbury where neighbors will grow fresh food for the neighborhoods. We’re training ourselves to prevent and respond to crises and harm without the police. And we’re engaging in people-led processes like participatory budgeting and participatory defense that put power back in the hands of those whom the system has punished and disenfranchised.
The criminal legal system only causes further harm, especially in Black neighborhoods like Humboldt Avenue where the Boston Police Department’s gang unit patrols have eviscerated our constitutional rights. While the state continues to increase its investment in policing and prisons, formerly incarcerated women are pouring love and resources into our neighborhoods — like The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls’ groundbreaking guaranteed income program that delivers monthly cash relief to both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. We are the ones raising the money and sustaining community-led solutions that create real safety and well-being and we are just getting started.
We call our hyper-local approach to organizing Reimagining Communities. We are not reimagining prisons. That conversation has been happening for 150 years and we have heard it all: reformatory; treatment and rehabilitation center; gender-responsive prison; trauma-informed prison; and now “feminist jail.” A prison is a prison. As women who have lived inside prisons across the country, we know for sure that there is no safe prison for women.
The Commonwealth has had a century and half to do whatever women’s prison construction projects it wanted. Constituents across the state demand that Governor Charlie Baker and the Legislature pass the five-year jail and prison construction moratorium without amendment so we can finally answer the question, “what else can be done?” There are clear and concrete steps to meaningfully decarcerate the fewer than 200 women at Framingham — many of whom are aging and sick. Over the next five years, we will create an exit plan for every woman by using existing pathways like community-based sentencing, parole, medical parole, and clemency, while continuing to build new pathways to healing outside of the carceral system.
We should empty MCI-Framingham, close it forever, and never build another prison in Massachusetts. Constituents across the state demand that the Legislature override Baker’s veto and pass the five-year jail and prison construction moratorium.
Andrea James is founder of Families for Justice as Healing and founder and executive director of The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.