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New women's prison in Massachusettes met with protests, cries of racism

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In Massachusetts, the women’s prison at MCI-Framingham is literally at the point of falling apart. It’s the second-oldest functional women’s prison in the country and it’s generally described as “crumbling.” The state has been advancing plans for several years now to replace it entirely and move the roughly 200 inmates there to a new facility. Those plans appeared to come another step closer to fruition this month when the state government put out a request for bids to begin construction on a new, state-of-the-art facility in Norfolk. But lobbyist groups are once again threatening to go to court to stop the effort, claiming that the construction of a new women’s prison would “have disastrous consequences for poor and Black communities for decades.” If successful, this would be the third time that they’ve managed to halt the project and tie the plans up in court. (Boston Globe)

Over the past year, Families for Justice as Healing has twice derailed the state’s efforts to move forward with the plan, filing formal complaints over a lack of transparency.

But the state appears to be pressing ahead anyway, recently putting out a third bid and selecting an architecture firm to study and design a new women’s correctional facility. The price tag would be $20 million to $40 million, according to the bid request from January.

“It’s been a longtime goal . . . to have a facility that is more conducive for the females that we have in our custody, to really look at trauma-informed care,” a Department of Correction official told the state selection board in February, according to Commonwealth Magazine.

The main driver in this opposition effort appears to be a woman named Andrea James. She’s the founder of Families for Justice as Healing and also the executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. (That group’s name is a real mouthful.) James reportedly did two years in a women’s prison on wire fraud charges and has been working ever since to “reform” the prison system. She claims that the funds being set aside to build the new prison would be better spent on “community-based alternatives,” whatever that means.

But this doesn’t really qualify as a “reform” effort, does it? James isn’t trying to improve the prison system in Massachusetts, she’s trying to end it. This is the liberals’ “empty the jails” movement on steroids. It also simply makes no sense.

If the new prison is built it will have safer and more modern facilities. One Department of Correction official told the panel that has been reviewing the project that the state needs a new facility that is more conducive to a female population and more focused on “trauma-informed care.” That sounds like precisely the type of reforms that Andrea James has been pushing for, and yet here she is trying to shut the project down.

What’s the alternative? Massachusetts has already released all of the prisoners they deemed to be at lower risk for recidivism and violent crime in the name of the pandemic. The ones they have left behind bars comprise the worst of the worst. If you don’t build the new facility you either have to leave them in the dangerously degraded facility at MCI-Framingham or cram them into another prison where they will create conditions of overcrowding.

While we’re on the subject, why is Andrea James claiming that the new prison will specifically have disastrous consequences “for poor and Black communities?” Is she implying that Black people are more likely to commit crimes and wind up behind bars? That sounds kind of racist if you ask me.

Of course, what James is really hoping for is to simply not have a prison and not lock up any convicts. These unrealistic visions of “reform” may be popular in liberal coffee klatches, but we’re not talking about a realistic solution here. The real world isn’t as pretty as we might like it to be and the sad fact is that there are always going to be people who break the law, sometimes in dangerous and destructive ways. Those people have to be held accountable while attempting to rehabilitate them if possible. If there are no consequences for illegal behavior, more people will engage in it. That’s just human nature, as depressing as the idea may be to consider. If Massachusetts has the money available to build the new prison, they need to move forward on this project and tear the old facility down.