New Report Proposes a Different Way Forward for Incarcerated Women in Massachusetts

New Report Proposes a Different Way Forward for Incarcerated Women in Massachusetts

For immediate release

BOSTON – July 11, 2022 – Today, Prisoners’ Legal Services’ (PLS) Women’s Incarceration Conditions and Reentry Project (the Women’s Project) released a new report detailing the traumatic experiences of incarcerated women in Massachusetts and the urgent need to remedy the harm that women face in the carceral system.  

The report, A Different Way Forward: Stories from Incarcerated Women in Massachusetts and Recommendations, draws on interviews and surveys of incarcerated women throughout Massachusetts, providing a comprehensive picture of how violence, trauma, and discrimination are intrinsic to women’s experiences of incarceration.  

Most respondents in the report have experienced or witnessed sexual misconduct by staff. Some experienced physical violence by staff, and others have been threatened with physical violence by staff. Transgender women incarcerated in men’s prisons reported sexual misconduct from both correctional staff and incarcerated men. The Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) reports that 70% of women in its custody have an open mental health case. A Different Way Forward highlights how this trauma is exacerbated in custody. 

“This report is one of countless pieces of evidence that women can never heal from past trauma by being punished and placed in a cage,” said Stacey Borden, a formerly incarcerated interviewee for the report and Founder and Executive Director of New Beginnings Reentry Services, Inc. “We hope that the voices of the directly impacted people in A Different Way Forward will be heeded and inform our path to a brighter future.” 

The harm women face at the hands of correctional staff is illegal but continually occurs with impunity. Staff sexual misconduct is pervasive despite the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was meant to address exactly these issues, and women regularly experience retaliation, in direct violation of DOC policy, for reporting staff misconduct. Transgender incarcerated women report being punished instead of protected by staff, including being subjected to unclothed searches conducted by male officers and being placed in solitary confinement after they experience sexual violence, all in contravention of law. 

For this report, the Women’s Project partnered with PLS’s Racial Equity in Corrections Initiative (REICI) to learn about the experiences of incarcerated Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) who are women. Incarcerated BIPOC women reported experiencing discrimination in the assignment of jobs and worse medical and mental health care as compared with incarcerated white women. Incarcerated BIPOC women who speak English as a second language reported struggling to be heard, understood, and have issues addressed due to inadequate interpretation services. As one incarcerated woman interviewed for the report put it, “As a woman, it’s like, where’s the dignity?” 

Informed by these experiences shared by women in state prisons, the report proposes five recommendations to respond to the trauma women face in criminal legal and carceral systems, calling for greater independent oversight over DOC and county sheriffs and a shift away from reliance on carceral systems and toward investments in community-based systems of care and safety. 

“Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women have been clear: women are never safe in the custody of the DOC. We cannot allow DOC to build another prison where generations of women will suffer. It’s time to do something different. The Commonwealth should pass a five-year moratorium on jail and prison construction without loopholes and spend that time focused on releasing women and investing in community-led solutions that stop the flow of women into incarceration. Directly affected women are already leading the important work to create what different looks like here in Massachusetts,” said Mallory Hanora, executive Director of Families for Justice as Healing 

The release of the Women’s Project’s report follows the publication of a report written by a consulting firm at the behest of the DOC, called Strategic Plan for Women Who Are Incarcerated in Massachusetts (the Ripples Report). The Ripples Report calls for the construction of a $40 million-dollar DOC-run “rehabilitation center” in response to the trauma incarcerated women experience in their lives. This rehabilitation center is simply a prison by another name, run by the same DOC responsible for the concerns outlined in A Different Way Forward. Building a new prison for $40 million, while underfunded and underutilized alternatives exist, does not benefit public safety, and only harms incarcerated women, their families, and their communities.  

“Trauma and discrimination are inherent to incarceration, so healing trauma requires us to shift away from reliance on carceral systems, and towards addressing the root causes of harm. The Ripples Report completely misses that point, and instead advocates for more of the same under the façade of innovation,” said Sarah Nawab, author of the A Different Way Forward and an Equal Justice Works fellow and attorney at PLS. 

Currently, fewer than 200 women are incarcerated in state prison in Massachusetts, down 75% from 2015. With the passage of a prison construction moratorium likely in Massachusetts, we are at a critical juncture to reduce the use and negative impact of incarceration. A Different Way Forward outlines the urgency of doing so and centering trauma-informed care and racial and economic equity in all public policy.