PLS considers A Different Way Forward for women’s prisons


Armand Coleman

Jasmin Borges (left), Stacey Borden (center), and Mallory Hanora (right).

By Ethan Cotler, Staff Writer

Warning: This article mentions domestic violence and sexual assault.

Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts held a discussion on Friday about PLS attorney Sarah Nawab’s report, “A Different Way Forward,” which outlines steps to respond to and prevent women’s trauma in the criminal justice system with a focus on prison abolishment.

On the cusp of a bill promoting the construction of a new women’s prison in Massachusetts, this report offers improvements and alternatives to incarceration. Nawab interviewed women who were incarcerated at Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Framingham, the only women’s prison in the Commonwealth and the oldest in the US. Alongside critiques of the prison, all four of the interviewees felt “the current reentry system that exists for women is woefully inadequate,” per the report.

Two of the women interviewed by Nawab were also panelists in the discussion. Stacey Borden, the founder of New Beginnings Re-Entry Services, hosted the event at the organization’s Women’s Empowerment House in Dorchester. Her organization New Beginnings strives to help formerly incarcerated women by providing a supportive community to reenter society and advocate on their behalf. The other interviewee and panelist, Jasmin Borges, is an organizer at the Massachusetts Bail Fund, which aims to post bail for those who cannot afford it.

The attendees were seated in an outdoor area while Nawab introduced the speakers. The first to speak was Emerson alum Mallory Hanora, who serves as director for Families for Justice As Healing. The report named her organization advocating “to end the incarceration of women and girls.” Honora touched on the report’s critique of the $50 million women’s prison Massachusetts is considering constructing.

Massachusetts neglected MCI-Framingham, the oldest women’s prison in the country, leaving it in disrepair. The state is looking at the former male prison Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk as a place to build the new project. The bill has yet to be passed but was met favorably by the state senate. 

“Building another women’s prison is a 150-year-old solution, and it’s time to put that to rest,” Hanora said. “[Families for Justice As Healing is] an abolitionist organization. We recognize the contemporary criminal legal system as an extension of the system of slavery. We recognize that its job is social and racial control.”

Hanora said her organization stands staunchly on the ideal of getting rid of prisons. “A Different Way Forward” seconds this abolitionist sentiment and demands community-based responses as a replacement for the carceral system. 

“The broad categories are housing, healing, treatment, education, economic development,” Hanora said. “We want people to have access to dignified and safe housing, and we want decentralized funding for community-led solutions, grassroots efforts, and neighborhood-based block-by-block projects where community members are given money and resources.”

In the report, Borges detailed her trouble finding housing and employment after her 12 years spent in MCI-Framingham. Today, she fights for formerly incarcerated women like her to have a voice.

“When you first enter the [prison] system, the first thing upon arrest they say is ‘You have the right to remain silent,’ and you continue to be silenced throughout your court proceedings, you continue to be silenced in prison,” she said. “So when Sarah of PLS approached me with [the report], I [said], ‘yes, let’s give these women the voice that they deserve, the platform to be heard.'” 

A point she elucidated in the report was that she experienced trauma during and before incarceration, and needed services to assist in care on reentry.

Borden said she also endured trauma in MCI-Framingham, which she spent time in and out of for 20 years. She said the prison system “should have been condemned years ago.” 

Borden listed reasons women may commit crimes that would land them in facilities like MCI-Framingham. According to Borden, most incarcerated women are victims of sexual and domestic violence. A study referenced in the report conducted by the Applied Research Forum in a New York State maximum security prison found that 94% of women surveyed had experienced abuse at some point in their lifetime.

Borden spoke briefly of her own experience of sexual and domestic violence, saying it took her years to process what she’d been through.

“I could never articulate what happened to me as a young child being sexually molested and [as] an 18-year-old girl being raped,” she said.

It wasn’t until 2008, when a judge asked Borden “what was wrong with her,” that she felt humanized for the first time.

“It took like all [those] years. Couldn’t they have given me some help?” Borden said. 

Borges said stakeholders in the US prison system feel the current system is the only option, but only because they “lack imagination.” 

To help provide communities with adequate resources, Nawab and PLS advocate for increased funding, job opportunities, and accessible career training. 

“It’s not the most policed communities that are the safest,” she said, “it’s the most well-funded.”

The report finds that women returning to underfunded communities are not sufficiently supported, and calls for the abolishment of carceral systems and the US’s reliance on those systems.

“State-sanctioned trauma is unacceptable for people of any gender, and especially for women, the overwhelming majority of whom have experienced violence and trauma during their lives,” states the report.