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Despite maintaining the highest incarceration rates in the developed world, US jail and prison populations declined modestly over the past three decades—even as the budgets for these institutions continue to rise, and construction of new jails and prisons continues across the country.

Now, a deteriorating women’s prison in Massachusetts is at the center of a fight to challenge that status quo, which could reverberate beyond the state’s boundaries by implementing what would appear to be the first statewide jail and prison construction moratorium in the country.

The focus of that fight, the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Framingham, MA, is the country’s oldest women’s prison—and its age is showing. The prison has been the subject of years, if not decades, of reports citing a crumbling infrastructure and poor conditions of confinement for those incarcerated, from inadequate medical facilities to documented cases of toxic black mold.

But where nearly everyone agrees that the conditions at the prison are unacceptable, there is stark disagreement about what should be done about it.

A State at the Crossroads

For years, state corrections officials have advocated for the construction of a new women’s prison, at the estimated cost of at least some $50 million. Opponents of that plan—from grassroots activists to legislatures to those incarcerated at the prison themselves—have fought against the new facility tooth and nail. Instead, they’ve proposed a five-year statewide moratorium on new prison construction and a move toward decarceration of the existing women’s prison.

Such a moratorium, should the measure pass the legislature and governor’s desk, would be potentially unprecedented: supporters said they aren’t aware of any such successful prison moratorium efforts anywhere else in the United States. And Massachusetts could be considered a test case for anti-carceral or abolitionist movements.

“Let’s lean into opportunities that are not prisons and jails.”

Massachusetts already has the lowest incarceration rate of any state in the country, with a prison population that has been slowly dwindling for decades, thanks in part to various rounds of criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing harsh sentences and promoting alternatives to incarceration.

Meanwhile, a new women’s prison would represent a renewed investment in the state’s carceral system. Funding proponents of the moratorium say that money should be invested instead in those community structures that keep people out of prison in the first place.

State Senator Jo Comerford, a sponsor of the moratorium, says the state is at a crossroads.

“While we are seeing these declines in the carceral population, let’s lean in, not go in the opposite direction, which would be embodied by a new facility,” Comerford told NPQ. “Let’s lean into opportunities that are not prisons and jails.”

The proposed moratorium, Comerford says, “is a simple idea. The bill says, let’s put a pause on construction of any new prisons and jails in the Commonwealth. And the reason behind that is it would allow the legislature and the administration to really consider both the impact of prior criminal justice reforms and then also the kinds of investment in alternatives to incarceration…without allowing new construction or expanded construction to be a part of that conversation.”

“We want to be a model for the rest of the country about how you can start to meaningfully reduce the incarcerated population and invest in communities.”

Reimagining the Carceral State

Grassroots activists supporting the moratorium see it as a crucial step toward the bigger, and harder, work of reimagining the role, scope, and even necessity of jails and prisons.

“We want to be a model for the rest of the country about how you can start to meaningfully reduce the incarcerated population and invest in communities so that people are not going back to jail and prison. We want to do that here,” says Mallory Hanora, executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, a nonprofit that has been at the center of the campaign for a moratorium.

“We feel like if they build a $50 million women’s prison, that is an investment in another 150 years of incarcerating our daughters and our granddaughters and our great-granddaughters,” says Hanora. “And we have to stop that before it happens.”

But they also have their eyes on a greater goal: the eventual emptying out, permanently, of MCI Framingham. The prison’s population, advocates say, is itself a case for decarceration.

About 20 percent of MCI Framingham’s roughly 200 incarcerated women are housed in pre-trial detention. In other words, they haven’t been convicted of any crime. Meanwhile, the prison houses seven women in their 70s, about 10 who are over 60, and many more who are in their 50s, says Hanora. Among those serving life sentences, the average woman has already served some 20 years.

“There’s an opportunity for women to come home, and cause no further harm,” says Hanora.

Jesse White, policy director for the nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLSMA), agrees that the women’s prison represents an opportunity for the state to take a second look at who, exactly, is incarcerated there, why, and to what purpose when it comes to the benefit of the inmate or to society as a whole.

“We are at an historic low level of incarceration for women in Massachusetts, and nonetheless, there are still a lot of women in Massachusetts who are incarcerated unnecessarily,” says White. “That population is characterized by a large portion of elders. It also includes a lot of people with very serious medical needs and just really needs that are not going to be met in the Department of Correction, and that would be better met in the community.”

And while Massachusetts does have one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, White points out, it’s still incarcerating residents at extremely high rates compared to the rest of the developed world.

“We have seen in recent years a strong movement, both nationally and in Massachusetts, to rethink, what are we doing with corrections?” White says. “Why are we warehousing huge portions of our population, especially our most vulnerable populations, populations that have been detrimentally impacted by decades upon decades of structural racism? How can we start to do things differently? These are incredibly important questions.”

Looking beyond the moratorium on new prison construction, advocates like PLSMA and Hanora’s group are pushing for the state and governor to use all the tools available to bring women home, including clemency, medical parole, and new policies like elder parole, versions of which have been adopted in California and New York.

Opposing Forces

Jail and prison moratoria have been a part of reformist and abolitionist agendas around the country for years. So far, none of those efforts have succeeded, at least at a statewide scale.

But advocates for the prison moratorium in Massachusetts have results to show for their efforts so far. The measure passed the legislature for the first time last year, only to be vetoed by then-governor Charlie Baker, a Republican. Advocates are hopeful that the measure will pass the legislature again this summer and be signed into law by Massachusetts’ new governor, Democrat Maura Healey.

Still, the proposed moratorium faces resistance.

“We’re very seriously concerned with accountability. We’re very seriously concerned with preventing and addressing and repairing harm.”

There is institutional pressure from the state’s Department of Correction, which has been planning a new prison for years. Then there are third-party interests, such as those companies that stand to profit from the proposed $50 million new prison.

But much of the opposition to a moratorium, Comerford says, is coming from less tangible sources—from institutional inertia and broader societal forces at play.

“There are a lot of silent forces” putting pressure on the state to move forward with a new prison, says moratorium sponsor Comerford, including “your societal norms, your societal prejudices which blame incarceration on individuals rather than on these systemic inequities.”

Those forces likely help explain why, despite successful pushes for criminal justice reforms in several states, there has been little to no meaningful action by states to halt the construction or expansion of carceral facilities.

Advocates like Hanora are acutely aware of broader societal fears that reducing the footprint of incarceration would mean an abdication of accountability. But Hanora argues that is not the case.

“We’re very seriously concerned with accountability. We’re very seriously concerned with preventing and addressing and repairing harm,” says Hanora. “We just know that prison doesn’t do any of that.”