Unlock them up!

Mass.-governors-house-clemency-rally-clemency-quilt-070421, Unlock them up!, Behind Enemy Lines
The clemency quilt was featured at the rally outside the governor’s house on July 4, 2021.

In Massachusetts and elsewhere, advocates are pushing for alternatives to incarceration.

by Victoria Law

On July 4, Stacey Borden braved the rain for a picnic, driving 40 minutes from her Boston home to Swampscott, Massachusetts. Dozens of others joined her, bringing blankets, lawn chairs, sandwiches, salad, soup and cookies.

This was no ordinary picnic in a park. Instead, Borden and nearly 40 other advocates were on the front lawn of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s house demanding that he grant clemency, or shorten the prison sentences, for more than a dozen women currently in the Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Framingham, the state’s only women’s prison.

They were also demanding something else: a state moratorium on constructing new jails and prisons, including a proposed new women’s prison.

Despite the weather, the picnickers stayed out for four hours. Some, like Borden, had served time in Framingham. Others had family members still locked inside the prison and feared for their loved ones’ health and safety in an environment where there was no space to social distance during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They brought a bullhorn and, in between bites, attendees addressed the crowd and, they hoped, the governor and his staff inside of the house. 

Mass.-FreeHer-clemency-kickoff-march-in-Boston-070221, Unlock them up!, Behind Enemy Lines
Antoine Jefferson holds the sign at the July 2, 2021, kickoff rally for the Building Up People Not Prisons clemency campaign in Boston. Two days later, they held a four-hour rally outside the governor’s house – in the rain!

“I let the governor know it was time to start reviewing clemencies,” Borden told the gathering. She noted that Baker, a Republican, has not commuted a single prison sentence during his two terms in office. “It’s time [for him] to sit down and review what’s happening with the women who are in these cages.”

Besides soup, sandwiches and salads, the picnickers also brought a quilt bearing the names of eighteen women at Framingham who are seeking clemency. Some called in to the picnic from the prison; organizers connected their phones to the sound system and amplified their words.

One of those callers was Angela Jefferson, who has served more than 30 years of a life sentence and had recently been denied clemency. When she was first sent to prison, she told the crowd, her children were only 3 and 5 years old. Among the picnickers was that former 5-year-old Antoine Jefferson, now age 35. He picked up the bullhorn and spoke about how his mother’s imprisonment has meant putting his entire life on hold as he waits – and fights – for her to come home. 

“Massachusetts absolutely does not need a new prison,” Jefferson said. “Instead, the millions of dollars could be spent to better our community, especially the most crime-impacted corridor of Dorchester and Roxbury.” 

The picnic was part of a kickoff campaign pushing for mass clemencies and a statewide moratorium on new jails and prisons. Under the banner cry of Building Up People Not Prisons, advocates are pushing for decarceration – reducing the numbers of people behind bars. They want solutions that don’t involve further criminalization and incarceration.

Mass.-governors-house-clemency-rally-Antoine-Jefferson-Stacey-Borden, Unlock them up!, Behind Enemy Lines
“The number of women currently imprisoned in Massachusetts is so low that they could literally be set free and the allocated funds for this new prison could be used to educate, house, train, support and reimagine a pilot program where the community is strong enough to welcome these women home,” said Antoine Jefferson at the July 4 rally outside the home of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. Fellow activist Stacey Borden gives him a hug.  

To this end, they’re advocating for S.2030, a bill to pause the construction or expansion of jails and prisons in Massachusetts for the next five years. It even bars repairing existing correctional facilities “for the purposes of expanding the facility or increasing its bed capacity.”

Framingham

The Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Framingham incarcerates an average of 193 women per day, at an annual cost of $162,260 per person. Opened in 1877, the prison has long been crumbling. It has also been the site of numerous abuses, including inadequate health care, health and safety violations, staff violence and retaliation when women attempt to publicize any of these conditions.

In 2016, Framingham closed several housing units after finding high levels of PCBs – carcinogenic chemicals that have been banned in the United States since 1979. Prison officials moved the women into the remaining housing units, making them more cramped. They also transferred nearly 200 women to the South Bay House of Corrections, one of two jails in Suffolk County.

Nearly two years ago, Massachusetts corrections officials proposed closing Framingham and building a new women’s prison. They’ve encountered fierce opposition from advocates, including formerly incarcerated women like Borden and Families for Justice as Healing, which seeks to end female incarceration throughout Massachusetts.

“We’re in agreement with this prison being closed down, but not enough to build a new site,” Borden tells The Progressive. “Not with the low population that we have of women incarcerated in Massachusetts.”

Early experiences left her “brainwashed into thinking everyone goes to prison.”

Sashi James of Families for Justice as Healing argues for redirecting the millions earmarked for the new prison toward creating and bolstering resources that address poverty, violence and other systemic issues in underfunded communities, preventing imprisonment altogether. 

James grew up in Roxbury, a predominantly Black part of Boston where the median household income is less than $31,000 and the incarceration rate is double that of the rest of the city. Her father was imprisoned until she was 12 years old; during her first year in college, her mother was sentenced to two years in prison. (Her mother, Andrea, co-foundedFamilies for Justice as Healing while in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.)

These early experiences, James says, left her “brainwashed into thinking everyone goes to prison.” Throughout her childhood, she would often think: “OK, maybe I’ll go next.” It wasn’t until her mother’s release that she understood that imprisonment was not a normal rite of passage. “I’m not gonna go to prison,” James, now a mother herself, insists. “And neither is my daughter.”

Mass.-governors-house-clemency-rally-Sashi-James-daughter-Katori-070421, Unlock them up!, Behind Enemy Lines
Sashi James speaks in the rain as she holds her daughter Katori outside the governor’s house on July 4, 2021.

James notes that lawmakers, in planning to build a new prison, are thinking not about decarceration but continued criminalization and incarceration, even as prison populations have decreased in recent years for a number of reasons.

In Brangan v. Commonwealth (2017), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that, when setting bail, a judge must consider a defendant’s financial resources and not set bail higher than the defendant can afford without a stated reason. The decision was codified as part of a larger criminal justice legislative package in 2018, which also allowed sentencing judges to consider a person’s role as a caretaker of dependent children.

By 2019, Massachusetts had the nation’s lowest incarceration rate with 8,692 people, or 26 people per 100,000, in prison. By late July, that number had dropped even further to 6,570 state prisoners. Of those, 164 are imprisoned at Framingham.

“The number of women currently imprisoned in Massachusetts is so low that they could literally be set free and the allocated funds for this new prison could be used to educate, house, train, support and reimagine a pilot program where the community is strong enough to welcome these women home,” said Antoine Jefferson.

“If we have such a low population [of imprisoned women], why do we even need a new prison?” Borden asks. “Can’t we find other solutions, like supportive services in the community?”

“There’s no such thing as ‘trauma-informed’ in a prison.”

Prison, she explains, does nothing to push people toward accountability or transformation, nor does it provide therapy to address underlying trauma. In 2016, six years after leaving prison, Borden founded New Beginnings Reentry Services to provide housing, counseling, higher education and other support services for women released from prison – services, she says, that prison does not provide.

No new women’s prison

In late 2019, when Massachusetts correctional officials began seeking bids to renovate existing buildings and build a new women’s prison, formerly incarcerated advocates met with architects who might bid on the contract. They challenged claims made by the state’s Designer Selection Board that prisons can be rehabilitative, conducive to women’s mental and physical health, and “trauma-informed.”

At these meetings, Borden recalled, she and other women told architects about their own prison experiences. They described not only the pain of being separated from their children and other family members, but also such brutal prison practices as strapping prisoners to a chair, straitjacket-style, if they were believed to be at risk of self-harm. In prison, Borden says, an act as normal as crying could lead to hours strapped in the dreaded chair. As she puts it, “There’s no such thing as ‘trauma-informed’ in a prison.”

Advocates derailed the process twice, not only pressuring architectural firms not to bid on the multimillion- dollar job but also filing complaints about the lack of transparency in the state contract process. In June 2021, the state contracted with HDR Architecture, awarding the firm $550,000 for the study and design of a women’s correctional center. According to Worth Rises, an organization tracking corporations that profit from incarceration, HDR Architecture has designed more than 275 correctional facilities.

Advocates with Families for Justice as Healing asked to meet with HDR’s architects to discuss their concerns about building a new prison. When they received no response, they organized weekly protests outside the firm’s Boston office, handing out fliers and talking to passersby about HDR’s role in perpetuating mass incarceration. They also bombardedHDR’s social media accounts with demands to not build the new women’s prison. In response, the company, which is also reported to have been spying on activists opposed to their construction efforts, locked its Twitter account.

Mass.-governors-house-clemency-rally-members-of-Building-Up-People-Not-Prisons-070421, Unlock them up!, Behind Enemy Lines
Members of the Building Up People Not Prisons coalition pose outside the Massachusetts governor’s house on July 4, 2021.

The Building Up People Not Prisons campaign seeks an end to all new jails or prisons in Massachusetts. Campaign member Katy Naples-Mitchell, an attorney at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, says any new prison would be out of step with the state’s decreasing incarceration. That’s where S.2030 comes in, allowing legislators to rein in costly prison building and expansion and refocus energies and funds on preventive and reentry initiatives.

During the online Senate hearing in July, more than 70 people waited hours to offer live testimony in support of the bill. Others, like Borden, who was attending a parole hearing for a woman at Framingham that afternoon, sent written testimony.

To bring more attention and support for the bill, advocates held a weeklong march in September beginning in Springfield, stopping in several cities (including Framingham) before ending in Boston.

“The moratorium will give us a chance to build up what we need” in the communities, says James, “and show people we don’t need prisons and jails.”

Beyond bars

Across the country, organizers have been waging campaigns to close existing jails and prisons and prevent new ones from popping up.

Alabama: In 2019, after years of activist pressure, major banks announced they would not provide new financing to private prison corporations. Two years later, private prison company CoreCivic failed to secure financing for two of three new mega-prisons in Alabama, which it planned to lease to the state for $94 million a year.

“The moratorium will give us a chance to build up what we need” in the communities, says James, “and show people we don’t need prisons and jails.”

Los Angeles, California: Advocates with Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), JusticeLA and Re-Imagine LA County have in recent years stopped the proposed expansion of the Lynwood women’s jail, closed the city’s Men’s Central Jail and canceled the construction of a new 4,000-bed jail billed as a “mental health facility.” CURB’S “The People’s Plan for Prison Closure,” released in April, calls for closing additional California state prisons.

San Francisco, California: In 2020, the No New SF Jail Coalition led a successful campaign to close the long-crumbling county jail at 850 Bryant St. “If we can prove that no city needs a jail like 850 Bryant,” the coalition stated, “then we have shown the world that we do not need cages of any kind for any reason.”

Travis County, Texas: In June 2021, county commissioners unanimously voted to pause plans for a new women’s jail, including indefinitely postponing approval of a $4.6 million design contract to HDR Architecture. More than 100 community members submitted public comments opposing the new jail and supporting community-based diversions to incarceration.

Washington State: In April 2020, under the banner “No New Women’s Prison,” organizers and locals derailed plans to reopen a closed youth detention center as a new (adult) women’s prison. The state Department of Corrections vows to keep trying; organizers vow to push back.

Atlanta, Georgia: In May 2019, after years of organizing by Women on the Rise, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed legislation to close the Atlanta City Detention Center, which holds those arrested for violating city ordinances (such as driving without a license or walking in a roadway), and turn the site into a community center. But the Fulton County sheriff and some city legislators are pushing to turn the 17-story jail into an overflow site for the neighboring jail.

New York City: As part of its plan to close Rikers Island, its notorious island-jail complex, the City of New York has proposed building jails in four of its five boroughs. But the plan has been met with vociferous opposition in each borough, with residents suing the city to block the plan, the fate of which remains uncertain.

Victoria Law is a writer, photographer and mother. After a brief stint as a teenage armed robber, she became involved in prisoner support. She is the author of “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women” (PM Press 2009), “Prison By Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reform” (New Press 2020) and “’Prisons Make Us Safer’ and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration” (Beacon Press 2021). She can be reached by mail at Victoria Law, P.O. Box 20388, Tompkins Square Station, New York, NY 10009, or by email at vikkimL@yahoo.com. This story is republished with permission from The Progressive.