A group of 20 women incarcerated at MCI-Framingham testified live on Zoom at a hearing on Monday — for the first time in legislative history.
Clad in green uniforms, each woman sat in front of a camera in a white room and spoke in favor of a prison moratorium bill. The legislation would put a five-year pause on planning or building new prisons and renovating current prisons “beyond maintenance or building code requirements.”
Their reasoning often stemmed from their own experiences, telling stories of poor medical care, concerns about limited reentry services upon entering the free world and dire conditions they experienced behind the walls of one of America’s oldest functioning prisons.
The bill was approved by the Legislature in the last session, but then-Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed it, saying the moratorium would restrict the ability to “maximize operational efficiencies.” His administration was considering building a new women’s prison in Norfolk to replace the aging MCI-Framingham. State Sen. Jo Comerford, who is the lead sponsor of the bill, called Baker’s veto “misguided.”
Christen Longley at MCI-Framingham testified in support of the moratorium.
“There’s a much less costly option,” Longley said as she sat before the camera. “It is getting people into alternative housing programs.”
Longley said that there’s a false narrative that Framingham is overcrowded when the population has dropped, and said that there are two unused newer units at the Framingham facility. A decade ago, more than 600 women were at MCI-Framingham, and now it’s about 200.
The state estimates that it would cost $50 million to build a new women’s prison.
“Fifty million? Why do we need a new facility? There are two units they aren’t even using so that they can cram us into less space,” said Graciela Paulino.
The Department of Correction did not specifically respond to questions about the new units.
Several women, including Sandra Dostie, pointed to the $20 million spent to renovate the facility over the past few years. Dostie says there’s a pervasive and false narrative about how the prison is so far gone that is can’t be repaired. “Please keep talking to us,” she said.
“Yes, MCI-Framingham needs repairs, but not imminently. What we need is accountability,” said Robin Casali. She said she wanted to see restorative justice programs.
Many of the women mentioned past history of sexual and domestic violence. “Eighty-six percent of women in prison identify as victims of sexual violence,” said Hema Sarang Sieminski of Jane Doe Inc, saying the state needs to prioritize and resource healing services. “We need to recognize that passing the moratorium is a survivor issue.”
Paulino thinks the funding should go to reentry services. “When I go home, I have nothing to go back to.”
Advocates want to prevent that replacement of the women’s prison, which has involved paying and meeting with firms to draw up plans for a new facility. They also want to put a stop to incarceration overall, and an infusion of funds into alternatives, like a guaranteed basic housing program, and community-led crisis response.
Others spoke of fellow prisoners who were aging and ill, and the need to release them and support them, not spend money on prison construction.
“There’s people 80-years-old in here and they have dementia and don’t even know they’re here. They’ll never see their families before they die. It’s sad to say,” Jasmin Rivera said. She said she’s been in and out of prison since she was 18 — now, she’s 49 — and that in-prison services have been poor.
“When the judge sentenced me, he said it was for rehabilitation,” she said. “That is not what has happened.”
Lawmakers celebrated the testimonies from female prisoners. Comerford was overjoyed, called it a “historic moment” and said that people impacted by policy should have a say in hearings. Committee Chair and state Rep. Antonio Cabral said that having prisoners Zoom into his committee was “new,” and that it’s “important to hear from them.”
Advocates are calling on the new governor to back their bill, and called on Healey to support it during a rally outside of the State House.
“Gov. Healey supports efforts to stop new construction of prison infrastructure provided it does not preclude the state from making critical renovations to maintain safe, modern facilities and attain quality programming and services,” said Karissa Hand, spokeswoman for Gov. Maura Healey.
“This bill does not preclude repairs,” Comerford said during the hearing. “It’s important to note this,” she said.
In 2021, the Department of Correction and the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance signed a contract with the firm HDR Architecture to design a new women’s prison.
In its original pitches to the state, HDR spoke of a smaller prison with trauma-informed services. But that isn’t appeasing some legislators and advocates.
“I’m not alone in believing there is no such thing as a trauma-informed prison,” Comerford said. “Incarceration is inherently traumatic.” She said prisoners need alternatives.