“It’s sad, it shows the DOC’s only intent is to build a new women’s prison, they don’t want to listen to alternatives.”
As Massachusetts officials continue to push forward with a plan to build a new women’s prison, anti-incarceration advocates are stepping up protests against a potential designer—and hoping allies in the legislature could put a stop to all new plans for prisons.
“We believe we can really push this bill [and] get other senators and representatives to pass a moratorium for five years,” said Stacy Borden of Families for Justice As Healing, one of the groups leading the effort. “Let us start to show what different looks like.”
Since 2019, Families for Justice as Healing has been pushing back on the state Department of Corrections and Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance as they’ve explored building a new women’s prison to replace MCI Framingham, which has not been up to code for nearly a decade. State officials first explored revamping the closed Bay State Correctional Facility, then put out a call for a larger study that left the door open for BSCF renovations. They have generally looked at spending $50 million on a women’s prison project, even as FJH has protested their plans as avoiding public scrutiny, as DigBoston reported in February.
But as the number of women in prison declines in Mass, building new prisons is sending a message that the state is looking to keep incarcerating women for decades to come, according to FJH member Joneisha James.
“We’re coming from the perspective of people going to be impacted by this, we have people saying, This is what we need, and you are saying, No, we are just going to build,” said James, whose mother, Andrea James, founded FJH after being imprisoned herself. “They’re not just trying to lock us up, but our daughters and our daughters’ daughters. They’re creating a cycle of more incarceration instead of increasing safety in the community.”
FJH protested both bids, saying they were improperly advertised, and DCAMM and DOC pulled the bids back. But at the end of 2020, they introduced another request, for a Study and Design of a Correctional Center for Women, that called for spending $550,000 on consultants to examine renovation or replacement of a women’s prison, mentioning Bay State Correctional as a possible site. And while the Attorney General’s Office agreed with an FJH complaint that the bid was not properly advertised—public announcements did not mention the project was for a prison—it let the bid go through anyway.
Like the other bids, this current plan calls for “trauma-informed” design of a prison. James said language like that, supporting visiting areas and other “welcoming and therapeutic spaces,” ignores the idea of community-based response and props up a damaging carceral system.
“Just because you build a nursery in a prison doesn’t mean it’s trauma-informed, the reality is you’re saying you’re going to lock up a baby with their mother,” James said.
DCAMM ultimately viewed presentations from architectural groups seeking the study and design contract at a public meeting as James and dozens of other activists watched. James said the presentations showed illustrations of playgrounds in prison yards and happy women in visiting areas with family members, and while those presenters were given plenty of time, public comment was cut short.
“It was a three-hour presentation and then eight minutes of comment,” James said. “They didn’t allow us to humanize ourselves … they did not allow architects to see the people of the community opposing this. It’s sad, it shows the DOC’s only intent is to build a new women’s prison, they don’t want to listen to alternatives.”
The Design Selection Board ultimately selected HDR Architecture for the project and is in the process of finalizing a contract, a DOC spokesperson said. HDR is a national firm with plenty of prison construction in its portfolio, and is currently working on a $45 million project at the Middleton Jail and House of Correction.
And it’s a firm with offices in Boston. FJH wrote HDR leaders an open letter asking them to step back from a project “only intended to destroy black and brown communities,” James said, but got no response—so the group has begun protesting outside HDR’s building.
In addition to picketing, FJH hands out fliers listing community rehabilitation projects that could be funded with $50 million, as opposed to a new prison, and that makes an impression with people unaware of the state’s plan and its price tag, James said.
“People that are not impacted by incarceration have no idea how harmful it is to people,” said James, adding the response from passers-by has been positive. “People say, We’re with you, we don’t need a women’s prison.”
HDR referred questions to DCAMM for comment. DCAMM did not respond to request for comment. A DOC spokesperson said the agency has made no final decisions on the future of MCI Framingham or women’s corrections in general.
But members of the Legislature are also considering a proposal that would stop not just plans for Bay State Correctional, but across Massachusetts. Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Chynah Tyler are sponsoring a five-year moratorium on any expansion, renovation, or conversion at new correctional facilities, only allowing maintenance to keep up with building codes.
The moratorium is still in committee, but James and Borden said they have high hopes that lawmakers can act on it and prevent further prison work. At a panel discussion earlier in the month, Comerford said she wanted to act fast while the Bay State Correctional project is still getting underway.
“Blueprints are not drawn up, construction is not done, swift passage could help interrupt construction,” Comerford said. “Any new construction of a new women’s prison will take the Commonwealth in exactly the wrong direction.”
“I see the Department of Correction as a place of rehabilitation, but we’ve been shown over and over again that this is not the case,” Tyler said at the discussion. “I’m really looking forward to a partnership and making a place where people can have a real second chance and not be hindered by all the trauma they face. I am in it to pass it.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.