No New Jails. Period.

This is part one of a two-part series about bills regarding incarceration that are currently under consideration in Massachusetts


“Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, there shall be established a women’s regional correctional facility in Eastern Massachusetts to address the unique and specific needs of female pre-trial detainees and county offenders in Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, Norfolk, Plymouth and Barnstable counties. This facility will provide specialized programming, access to vital medical services and shall address specific needs of incarcerated women not currently provided by the Commonwealth.” – S. 1297

Unique and Specific Needs

I’m never quite sure what’s “unique” about women’s needs, given that women are more than half of the U.S. population. Be that as it may, having spent the past decade speaking with women pre-, during and post-incarceration, I know that jails and prisons are not optimal – or even appropriate – settings for providing health care or social services. The coercive nature of incarceration does not allow women to be active participants in addressing their health issues. Prisoners cannot seek medical care in an autonomous way (requests for medical attention are channeled through correctional officers resulting in delays and even denial of care) and women often distrust the medical care provided in prison. Mental health services in particular are of questionable value when provided in coercive settings. Though the details are fictional, this truth is well dramatized in Orange is the New Black‘s Brook Soso‘s experiences with her counselor Sam Healy (spoiler alert: she tries to commit suicide as a consequence of his therapeutic skills.) Rather than serving a therapeutic purpose, incarceration cuts women off from support networks as well as their on-going sources of medical and mental health care, exacerbating whatever challenges they faced before they were locked up. Even in best case scenarios of willing participants and skillful providers, jail settings magnify the social and personal powerlessness that created this female “neediness” in the first place.

More broadly, it is inappropriate for jails and prisons to compensate for the failure of the State to provide for women’s “specific needs.” Jails and prisons are not social service or therapeutic agencies, and that distinction needs to be made clear as a matter of human rights.

Pre-trial Detention

The new jail called for in S. 1297 would serve as a setting for pre-trial detention; that is, incarceration of individuals who have not yet been tried or proven guilty (individuals who, in line with American jurisprudence, are presumed innocent.)

Although women comprise only 7% of state prisoners they comprise 33% of pretrial detainees held by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. This disparity reflects substantially lower rates of major and violent crimes committed by women coupled with substantially higher rates of poverty among women. Women incarcerated in pre-trial status typically have been arrested for non-violent crimes and are too poor to pay even minimal bail fees. It is not unusual for women to be unable to come up with bails of $100 or $200 dollars. As one woman whom I interviewed explained, “There are lots of women in the Awaiting Trial Unit who are $10 short on bail. They can pay most of it but not all so they are kept in jail which costs the State a lot more.”

Yet very few women incarcerated in Massachusetts need to be removed from the community in order to preserve public safety. In fact, they are far more likely to have been victims than perpetrators of violent crimes; nearly all live with chronic physical and mental illnesses; the majority has experienced sexual and physical abuse; many are homeless; most are poor; and about half struggle with basic literacy and learning skills.

There are a number of bills and conversations currently working their way through the Massachusetts legislature that call for limiting the use of pre-trial incarceration and replacing it – when appropriate — with rational tools for assessing whether or not an individual is violent and / or a flight risk. For example, H.1584 & S.802 calls for basing pre-trial detention on an individual’s risk of not returning to court, rather than his or her ability to pay a monetary bail. In states where these tools have been adopted, the rate of pre-trial incarceration has dramatically declined for women. More important, there has been no increase in criminal activity or recidivism carried out by women awaiting trial at home rather than in a correctional facility.

Facility – Shmacility!

The road to hell, as they say, can be paved with good intentions. And the impetus behind S.1297 is indeed benevolent (I know the track record of the bill’s sponsor to be a true advocate for women); the goal is indeed to help “needy” women. But, as feminists have made clear for the past half century – paternalism, while often kindly intended, erases agency and obscures the underlying structures of oppression. Indeed, the use of the word “facility” rather than “jail” in and of itself obfuscates the situation. But as long as that facility has locked doors and is run by the Department of Corrections it is a jail. And we do not need more jails. Period.

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