Mass. prison system fails troubled women

MCI Framingham.
MCI Framingham.file 2002/BARRY CHIN/globe s taff

Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley made headlines earlier this week with his fierce defense of mandatory minimum sentences. During a summit of luminaries in the criminal justice field, he said that giving judges more discretion in sentencing would be “a return to a failed policy of 30 years ago.” What Conley didn’t address was the supposed topic of his panel: the disproportionately high numbers of people incarcerated in Massachusetts with mental illness and substance abuse, especially among women. In a way, the forum was hijacked by the contentious issue of sentencing reform, and women’s needs were overlooked — again.

According to the US Bureau of Justice, nearly 75 percent of women incarcerated in state prisons and county jails nationwide suffer from mental illness. It’s about 50 percent for men. Similarly in Massachusetts, according to Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, the incidence of mental illness or substance abuse in his population is 36 percent higher for women than for men. This desolating gender gap persists when it comes to drug addiction as well. Unsurprisingly, the majority of women in prison with mental health problems also are addicted to alcohol or drugs, as they desperately try to find relief from their torments


The sad truth is that the state’s prisons are becoming de facto detox centers and mental health facilities of last resort. “In many places, the biggest and best funded treatment options are found behind prison walls,” according to John Larivee, president of the research and advocacy group Community Resources for Justice. Left unsaid is what a poor match prisons are for that kind of work.

For women, most of whom have suffered some form of trauma, the prison setting can trigger panic attacks and other symptoms that only exacerbate their illness. “Women are a unique population,” Attorney General Maura Healey said in an interview. “Many are victims of trauma, of sexual violence, human trafficking. We need to address the unique circumstance that they arrive with.”

At Framingham state prison for women, superintendent Lynn Bissonnette has instituted a “trauma-informed’’ approach that includes peer counseling and separate treatment plans for women who are undergoing drug detox or are on suicide watch. This is laudable, but Framingham still isn’t the most appropriate place for treatment. As the only state prison for women in the state, Framingham detains women from as far away as the Cape, wrenching mothers from their families, and the population includes a mix of violent criminals, women awaiting trial, and those “civilly committed” for treatment, who may have committed no crime at all.


The state has tried a number of strategies to divert individuals in these vulnerable groups from prison. Drug courts have proven a great tool for bringing specialized attention and services to drug addicted offenders – with the added leverage that comes with a court order to keep the offender in treatment. The model has been replicated with “mental illness courts,” in Springfield and Plymouth, even a “homeless court” in Boston. But the demand well exceeds supply.

The state Department of Mental Health works with local police on a jail diversion program that intervenes even before a mentally ill person is arrested, saving the state thousands of dollars per case in court and jail costs. But the program is in only 24 towns. The one thing the state hasn’t tried is a full-throated commitment to drug and mental health treatment on demand, which is only expensive if you don’t consider the ongoing cost to society of these behaviors, to say nothing of the human suffering. “This is not a situation where we can imprison our way to a safe society,” said Healey.

The summit this week didn’t fully address the “special populations” caught in the justice system, but it did reveal deep rifts between civil rights advocates and those who prioritize public safety. In closing remarks, Healey recognized the difficulty of reconciling “the compelling interests that are in the balance.” As attorney general, Healey calls herself “the people’s lawyer,” but she is also the state’s top cop. She is in the best position to bring competing factions together and stop the system from failing these troubled women.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.


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