Massachusetts S. 2030, a bill to place a moratorium on all prison construction for five years while we evaluate alternatives to our carceral system, is accepting written testimony through August 4. Please consider offering your testimony (link). This post is an essay published in the Cambridge Chronicle that advocates for even more.
The moment I learned that the international architecture firm HDR was selected to create the preliminary plan for a new women’s prison to replace MCI-Framingham, my mind reeled back forty years. 1981. One month out of Architecture School. My first professional assignment: a new hangar for the U.S Navy. I was dumbfounded. School projects had included clinics, housing, arts centers; nothing that challenged the ethics of a bloke who’d chosen to be a VISTA Volunteer rather than a veteran. Next day I explained to my boss why I could not, in conscience, work on a military facility. Today, I wonder how many HDR staff feel compelled to decline working on the new prison.
MCI-Framingham, built in 1877, is the oldest operating women’s prison in the United States. Department of Correction’s (DOC) has determined that the antiquated facility needs to be replaced. To the tune of $50 million.
I suggest we consider a bolder, more cost-effective, more humane option. Instead of replacing the building, let’s replace the system. Let’s change our operating assumption and decide that no woman in Massachusetts will be sent to prison. Period. Let’s create alternative, decentralized methods to deal with criminally accused and convicted women. (Note: the term ‘women’ reflects DOC terminology regarding inmates’ gender identity.)
Massachusetts is at a propitious inflection point that makes abolishing incarceration of women both practical and feasible. In April 2021, there were 162 inmates at MCI-Framingham; across the state 480 women total were held for bail, in jail, accused or convicted. The lowest female incarceration rate of any state.
This is something worth celebrating; unless you’re one of those 480 women, or a member of her family. How much do we spend keeping these women behind bars? Over $117,000 per inmate per year in direct costs; thousands more in collateral human services (over 60% of female inmates leave children under age eighteen behind). Now, we’re proposing to spend over $300,000 per inmate in additional capital expenditure.
The combination of (relatively) small prison population and abundant resources is a perfect opportunity for a pilot program that acknowledges the prison system, as we know it and grow it, is successful in keeping folks we don’t like out of sight, but it’s a failure in enabling them to rejoin and participate in society. It’s time to rise above the illusion of prison ‘reform’ and commit to developing accountability, reconciliation, and restitution within our community. This will be more difficult than putting women behind bars, but it offers transformational possibilities.
If we resolve to have ‘no women’s prison,’ we are free to reallocate resources to address underlying criminal causes: violence, poverty, racism, mental illness. We can replace incarceration with community-based residential support facilities that enable families to remain intact. We can use technology to monitor women during periods of restitution. We can actually create the rehabilitation that prison fails to produce by embedding women in their communities, responsible to their communities, accountable to their communities.
I don’t pretend to know how to create community-based alternatives to incarceration. My expertise lies in quite different arenas. After declining to work on military facilities, I focused on healthcare design, and became a savvy at synthesizing and articulating clinical, patient, and financial demands with soothing polish. So when I hear HDR intone the phrase ‘trauma-informed prison design,’ I’m keen to the phony buzz. There is no such thing as trauma-informed prison design. Prison is, by definition and design, a trauma that we inflict on already traumatized people. Sometimes the convicted have traumatized others. Almost always, the convicted traumatize us: by acting outside norms; by exposing the hypocrisy of societal benevolence.
The economic case against building a new women’s prison is strong. The humane case is irrefutable. Will we take this opportunity to do the truly right thing and commit ourselves to no women in Massachusetts’ prisons? We can replace the oldest women’s prison in the nation with a new paradigm of criminal justice; a model that demonstrates it’s unnecessary to imprison women. Once we develop that, we can adapt the approach to unprison adolescents, geriatrics, and eventually: everyone.