Walking the Walk for a Moratorium on Prison & Jail Construction

Peace Advocate September / October 2021

by Claire Gosselin

Governor Baker has incarceration on his mind. He envisions a new women’s prison to replace MCI Framingham to the tune of $50 million.  The state has chosen the HDR Architecture firm to design it.  They promise to make a nice “trauma informed” facility that will be more cozy for families to visit.  

Women who have lived on the inside disagree.  The National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (The National Council) and its local affiliate, Families for Justice As Healing (FJAH) have a better idea: Freeze all new prison and jail construction in Massachusetts for 5 years. Andrea James, founder of both groups and a former prisoner, says “There is no such thing as a ‘trauma informed’ prison.”  

The Council and FJAH have detailed alternatives to propose:  positive proposals for programs and services to create healthy and thriving neighborhoods, including community based treatment and alternatives to incarceration.  Five years can be dedicated to exploring and learning better ways to address the problems that lead to incarceration. They call for Building Up People Not Prisons. They point to the fact that our state has one of the lowest rates of incarceration in the country, but we spend more on jails and prisons than most other states. Women of color are disproportionately incarcerated — no accident due to great inequities and to patterns of policing in communities of color versus those which are predominantly white.

Because the Legislature previously approved a large bond for prison construction, Baker’s plan is not subject to legislative approval. The National Council and FJAH advocated with State Senators and Representatives who answered the call: Senator Jo Comerford and Representative Chynah Tyler introduced legislation earlier this year for a Moratorium on all Prison & Jail Construction, S.2030 / H.1905.  This legislation would: 

  • Give the Commonwealth a chance to shift spending priorities especially as we recover from COVID
  • Give communities the opportunity to create and sustain solutions that address the root causes of incarceration
  • Allow the state to fully implement criminal justice reforms and
  • Pause the new women’s prison process to implement alternatives: diversion, pre-trial release, community based sentencing, clemency, parole and medical parole — real alternatives and solutions led by directly affected people! 

Massachusetts could offer a new model for community safety.  The Legislation would not stop the state from routine maintenance or making essential repairs.  

On Tuesday, September 7, the National Council, FJAH and allies, including Mass Peace Action, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), took it to the streets, staging a 7-day walk from Springfield to the State House steps on September 13.  As we walked through the cities and towns, we found that most people knew nothing of the plans to build a new prison, and over 500 people we encountered were moved to sign on to our petition. Drivers honked their support.

Formerly incarcerated women and family members spoke at rallies in Springfield, Worcester, and Framingham, as well as at the State House in Boston. A daughter who was 3 ½ when her mother was incarcerated is missing her to this day: her mother is still in Framingham 30 years later. Though she has been a great support to women inside and is not a threat, she has been denied parole: they fault her for not participating in enough programs (which are not currently operating).  A woman who served many years in and out of prison from a young age due to early life trauma, abuse and rape, shared that no one in the system ever asked her what brought her to addiction and crime. Through support from other women inside and out, she was able to study and over time completed her degree in social work, which she is dedicating to serving women re-entering society.  

Why is it that women who pose no threat to society are kept inside? Who benefits? Not the women or their families, predominantly women of color and low income. Not their communities. The cost to Massachusetts is $1.4 billion annually to operate jails and prisons — and that does not include the cost to build a new women’s prison at $50 million or more. 

Yoav Elinevsky of Massachusetts Peace Action spoke at rallies along the route and compared this investment to the US wars on Afghanistan and other places.  Who benefits from US wars?  The military industrial complex and war profiteers. Not the Afghan people, not the US people. Our taxpayer dollars could be much better spent to meet needs at home and abroad, to address the climate catastrophe instead of feeding it with our wars.  

The women of FJAH have been pushing against the Governor and other jail and prison initiatives for many years.  We are joining them in actively advocating for the Moratorium.  A Testimony toolkit for the bills is available at bit.ly/S2030-toolkit, created before the July Senate bill hearing.  It includes background information and key points.  We need people to continue to contact legislators into the Fall.  Spread the word across the state, to every state legislator’s district to convey:  No new prisons!  No new Jails!  Free Her!  Invest in Our Communities, pass the Moratorium bill!

— Claire Gosselin is co-chair of MAPA’s Racial Justice/ Decolonization Working Group