December 30, 2019 brought overcast skies and the final convening of the Panel on Justice-Involved Women for the year. The state appointed panel, charged with examining the impact of Massachusetts’ criminal justice system on women and making relevant policy recommendations to lawmakers, met on the 21st floor of the John W. McCormack State Office Building. Discussion at the meeting was dominated by a new request for proposal released by the Department of Capital Asset Assessment and Management in collaboration with the Department of Correction, and about 25 community members — many representing the local organization Families for Justice as Healing — attended the meeting to voice opposition to the RFP.
The RFP was publicly announced on December 4, 2019, and the fast approaching January 8 deadline had panelists, who received no formal notice of its existence, scrambling to get ahead of it.
The RFP offers $650,000 to the team selected to study and design development plans for the DOC to eventually spend $50 million to open a new 200-bed women’s prison (by both renovating older facilities and constructing new ones) in Norfolk, Massachusetts. The DOC would then plan to transfer about 200 incarcerated women from MCI-Framingham to Norfolk. December 30 was the Panel’s first meeting since the RFP was released, and, left to find it through their own accords, some members had yet to have the chance to read it.
The debate regarding the RFP demonstrated political differences between the Panel’s members. The two FJAH representatives on the Panel, Founder Andrea James and Executive Director Mallory Hanora, urged the Panel to call for the cessation or pausing of the RFP process. James and Hanora argued that if the Panel on Justice-Involved Women is not consulted on such major decisions regarding women’s incarceration in Massachusetts, then the Panel’s influence and purpose have to be called into question. James and Hanora also insisted that the Panel and the state must consider options for de-incarceration, such as pretrial release and medical parole, rather than spending so much public money on prison construction. Director of Programs for FJAH Ayana Auborg told Liberation News, “Our role is to bring the voices of those who are directly impacted, who are women who have survived incarceration, into every aspect of the decision-making process… to raise the threshold on what could be possible, and how can we move away from investing in or re-imagining prisons into just creating solutions that are community-based in a way that’s not creating more harm. And how we can, at the end goal, de-incarcerate women and end the incarceration of women and girls.”
Most of the other Panel members in attendance were public officials, such as commissioners and/or representatives from the DOC, Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association, Department of Children and Families and Department of Mental Health. Representatives of larger agencies felt they did not have the authority to represent the will of their organizations on FJAH’s motions to stop or pause the RFP process and recused themselves from any vote, although their abstentions meant the vote would not have the quorum to proceed.
In addition to the expressed opposition and uncertainty, one Panel member expressed support for the RFP: Panel Chair Allison Hallett. Hallett is the Acting Assistant Deputy Commissioner of the DOC and former Superintendent of MCI-Framingham. Hallett insisted that the RFP is necessary because the conditions at MCI-Framingham are unsafe and Massachusetts’ incarcerated women must be relocated elsewhere, and because there is “always going to be a need for a female prison” because some women are serving life sentences. Hanora responded to this argument in an interview with Liberation News:
“Former Superintendent Hallet mentioned today that there’s 50 women who are lifers. What she didn’t talk about was how many of those women are disabled, how many of those women are chronically ill, how many of those women are elderly and how many of those women who have already done literally decades in prison, and that’s almost all of them. All of them are survivors of trauma and specifically sexual and domestic violence. For us, even that population who the general public might look at as having caused more serious harm, they’ve already paid for that with their lives, their bodies, and we want them to come home and live in dignity and experience healing before they die. Otherwise — we need to be very clear — they will die in a prison.”
Hanora also challenged Hallet’s characterization of the conditions at MCI-Framingham as a motivator for the RFP, asserting that before the RFP was issued, Hallett downplayed or denied complaints that FJAH members and other incarcerated women made about the conditions at that prison. Finally, FJAH members argued that even the incarceration of 50 life-sentenced women does not explain the need for 150 out of the 200 beds in the proposed prison project.
Ultimately, the Panel resolved to address a letter to the DOC commissioner requesting the Panel’s participation as council in the process and an extension of the closing date of the RFP process.
The end of the meeting was opened for public comment, however only one of the 25 community members in attendance was allowed to share testimony. The speaker, Jasmin Rivera, recounted her harrowing experience at MCI-Framingham, detailing bug-ridden food, rodent-infested beds, sexual and verbal assault by correctional officers and how the toxic conditions of the prison have decayed the bodies of incarcerated women due to prolonged exposure. Her statement was interrupted when Hallett cut off the speaker to inform her the meeting had reached time. The meeting was not extended to compensate for its 15 minute delayed start.
At the meeting’s end, Hanora levied a critique of the DOC and vowed that FJAH will continue fighting the process:
“I think that jail and prison construction is business as usual, and I also think that the Department of Correction is the least accountable agency in the Commonwealth… as long as we give them a blank check to spend as much as they want, they’re going to keep doing it Millions upon millions of dollars were just spent at [MCI-Framingham] to reconstruct those [residential] cottages that, as Jasmin shared, women are still not living in. So we also haven’t even held DOC accountable for the prison construction that they’ve already done, the money they’ve already spent, and we want to give them more money? Absolutely not. We’re not doing it. We’re just not going to do it anymore.”
Update: with the January 8 application deadline for the RFP now passed, it does not appear that the state has taken any action to slow the process.
Further reading: Mass incarceration is a women’s issue