Activists and elected officials marched the three miles from the Suffolk County House of Corrections to the Massachusetts State House Monday morning in support of a moratorium on construction of a new women’s prison in Norfolk.
As a finale to seven days of similar marches done by the group, more than 100 people gathered on the State House steps, where those impacted by incarceration and their local representatives spoke to the need for restorative justice rather than more punitive institutions.
Representatives from the group Families for Justice as Healing — a group of formerly incarcerated women who now advocate for the abolition of the prison system — organized the event alongside the Boston chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, Massachusetts Peace Action and the Community Love Fund.
“We know that a prison or a jail will never be a place for a woman or girl to heal and advance her life, and we intend on ending incarceration of women and girls,” said Andrea James, the founder of the Roxbury-based Families for Justice as Healing and the executive director of the Nation Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. “And we’re starting right here in Massachusetts.”
James served two years for wire fraud at Danbury, where she met fellow founding members of Families for Justice as Healing and hatched plans for reform. That was 11 years ago.
Since then, her organization and other offshoot organizations have taken on their cause in a two-fold manner — both by helping to provide resources and community to those returning home after serving time, but also by being vocal advocates for legislation to aid and heal communities harmed by incarceration.
In this latest action, the group walked across the Commonwealth, spreading the word about their cause and gathering signatures in support of moratorium legislation along the way. They began Tuesday, Sept. 7 with a rally and walk through Springfield, followed by six subsequent walks in the days following, culminating in the event at the State House.
The legislation, Senate Bill 2030 and House Bill 1905, proposed by Sen. Joanne M. Comerford and Rep. Chynah Tyler, respectively, looks to establish “an immediate prison and jail moratorium” on any and all proposed facilities “for the immediate preservation of the public safety and health.” The measures are reactionary, as the state moves forward with a bid from HDR architecture to build a new facility.
Justification for the project comes from the deteriorating state of MCI-Framingham, the oldest female corrections facility still operating in the United States. However, it’s still unclear what would happen to the Framingham prison when and if the new Norfolk building becomes a reality. In February of 2020, Commonwealth Magazine reported that the Baker administration planned to close the facility and transfer prisoners to Bay State Correctional Center, which currently only houses administrative offices.
Many of those present Monday made the point that the record low number of female detainees in Massachusetts doesn’t warrant the building of an entirely new prison, which if it was to be the same capacity as Framingham, would be able to house more than 500 people. According to James, only 135 women are currently serving time in state prison.
Rep. Steve Owens was among those who addressed the crowd. He recounted a visit to Framingham earlier this summer, during which prison officials disclosed that all inmate programming was closed due to the coronavirus, while the flag and embroidery shop remains open.
“The women need that programming in order to get credit and to get out — so they’ve got no programming, but … they had the sweatshop open,” Owens said. “So that’s what we’re up against — people who put a priority on the bottom line, on the dollars, and who are looking to line their pockets by building a new prison. And we’ve got to stop them, because we know if they build a new prison, they will fill it. They will find a way.”
Speakers throughout the morning included other politicians such as state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz; Reps. Tami Gouveia, Brandy Fluker Oakley, Mike Connolly and Christine Barber; advocacy workers including Leslie Credle of Justice 4 Housing, Stacey Borden of New Beginnings Reentry Services and Rosemary Keane of Massachusetts Peace Action; and family members of inmates who have died in state detention centers.
Several people, including 35-year-old Ayesha Johnson, who was struggling with alcohol addiction when she was admitted to South Bay for holding, have died in state custody this year. Johnson’s family was among those in attendance but did not share any statements.
Her passing was a little over two weeks after the death of Rashonn Wilson, who reportedly had been telling his family he was unwell for some time prior to being taken to see doctors. The mother of Wilson’s child did speak at the event, saying despite his wrongdoing, he did not deserve to die.
“He was being held responsible for his actions, but he was expecting to come home and see his son and his family,” she said.
Wilson was being held on a firearm charge.
Stacey Borden, whom the Banner profiled in July for her work creating a grassroots re-entry program and soon-to-open house for recently incarcerated women, had the crowd fired up as she recounted her own time in prison, left to detox without medical resources and saved by her fellow incarcerated women. She, and many others in attendance Monday, made the case for “community-led” criminal justice reform.
“HDR, Governor Baker, DCAMM — none of them experienced being in a cage. All of their children are going to college, buying properties and having children that aren’t living in a cage,” she said. “Put money in our communities and let us lead the way.”
By the end of the Monday event, the group had obtained over 1,000 signatures in support of the moratorium legislation.
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"It’s going to be a game changer," Chang-Díaz said. "I know it's going to take time for the MCAD to fill the staffing shortages that they've been experiencing in recent years, but this is a huge step forward."