Women’s Incarceration Conditions and Reentry Project
A Different Way Forward: Stories from Incarcerated Women in Massachusetts and Recommendations
On July 11, 2022, 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.
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.
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 acritical 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.
Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLS) started the “Women’s Incarceration Conditions and Reentry Project” in October 2020. The project was made possible through an Equal Justice Works fellowship, sponsored by General Electric Company and Choate, Hall & Stewart, and continues to be sustained through a generous grant from the Cummings Foundation. The purpose of the project is to, with the direction and leadership of currently and formerly incarcerated women, expand and deepen PLS services to incarcerated women, both cis and trans, other trans folks, and gender-non-conforming folks throughout the Commonwealth to be more responsive to their needs, and to pass the mic to incarcerated women to share their stories, needs, and insights, with the goal of affecting systemic change.
Historically, incarceration has been framed as a men’s issue. However, our system also incarcerates women, and this incarceration harms women, families, and communities. PLS is committed to serving incarcerated women, both cis and trans, other trans folks, and gender-non-conforming folks throughout the Commonwealth, and transforming our ideas of safety to include and uplift all women.
Incarcerated women face a lot of the same harms in prisons and jails as incarcerated men, including inadequate medical and mental health care, brutality, and poor conditions of confinement. Incarcerated women also face challenges more unique to them, such as inadequate pregnancy and reproductive health care, inadequate gender-affirming health care, and sexual violence and harassment by staff. Women, and especially women of color, often face serious and systematic sexual violence and abuse prior to their incarceration, and in some cases, the criminal charges brought against them resulting in their incarceration stem from the state’s failure to provide resources to community systems of care and safety. The resources that should have been available to these women and their communities are instead directed to policing, prosecution, punishment, and incarceration. During incarceration, women are subjected to further violence, abuse, and trauma, now directly created by and often sanctioned by the state. This cycle reinforces systems of patriarchy, White supremacy, and rape culture. We must reshape how we respond to violence and trauma.
Women frequently reported abuses to PLS, but often did not want to pursue remedies individually because of retaliation concerns and because the few available individual remedies are largely inadequate. Conversations with currently and formerly incarcerated women caused us to pursue a more systemic approach, which would allow us to compile both quantitative and qualitative information, diminish retaliation concerns by anonymizing the information, and engaging in public education and systemic reform efforts, all led by the voices and desires of currently and formerly incarcerated women.
Additionally, due to the historical framing of incarceration as a men’s issue, legal services for women upon reentry have often been unavailable and not responsive to gender-specific needs. As part of the public education piece of the project, PLS will help educate other legal services providers about women’s unique needs upon reentry based on what we learn from currently and formerly incarcerated women, and connect women leaving prison and jail with reentry-related legal services they report they need.
PLS is committed to the safety, human rights, and dignity of all women, and is in solidarity with Massachusetts community organizations like Families for Justice as Healing, Black and Pink Massachusetts, New Beginnings Reentry Services, and Justice 4 Housing, who are reimagining safety and uplifting all women.