Breaking the Cycle

Originally published in Suffolk University Magazine‘s spring 2022 issue.

When Boston’s new mayor Michelle Wu announced in early December her decision to move people living in tent encampments at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard into nearby transitional housing, she stressed the city would deploy a “public health and housing-first approach.” The goal: Develop a sustainable strategy so that those living in tents would no longer need to return. As many as 140 people were living in the encampment, most of them contending with addiction, mental illness, or both.

Over the next few weeks, city teams vacated individuals from the area—an effort blasted by some homeless advocates as intimidating and reckless, and praised by others who felt the city had to take humane action before winter arrived. Meanwhile, an interdisciplinary team of Suffolk University faculty—all women, and experts in law, policy, sociology, criminal justice, and related disciplines—and several likeminded researchers and social workers were following the mayor’s moves closely. The group had first joined forces in early 2021 under the banner of the Women and Incarceration Project (WIP) to oppose construction of a new women’s prison in Massachusetts. This time, the group came out in support of Wu’s Mass and Cass plan, as the first of many steps needed to break the cycle that places so many women who lack housing at increased risk for incarceration. What was needed, the group argued, is an approach that addresses the fundamental human rights issues that underlie homelessness and incarceration.

WIP members met with public officials. They wrote op-eds. They published resources outlining what a safe move from the encampment could look like. Any housing plan, they argued, must include more than just a roof overhead. It must also provide the support needed to rebuild relationships, manage healthcare, and pursue educational and work goals. Above all, the Suffolk professors stressed, the formerly homeless need to know they’re not one small mistake away from eviction.

LIVING ON A KNIFE’S EDGE

Susan Sered, chair of Suffolk’s Sociology and Criminal Justice Department, understands how minor missteps can cascade into catastrophic outcomes—particularly for women.

Consider the case, she says, of a woman living in transitional housing who has no car but must travel miles to meet with her probation officer. Should she beg a ride from her abusive ex-partner who is still using opioids, putting her safety and sobriety at risk? Perhaps she’ll be forced to trade sexual favors for the bus fare that amounts to almost one-tenth of her monthly disability income. Or she could skip the meeting, triggering an automatic revocation of her parole. Any of these options could erase the progress she’s made to get her life and family relationships back in order, and send her back into the vortex of the criminal justice system.

Sered says these kinds of impossible choices are so common among the women she studies that whenever she provides an incentive for involvement, they always request the same thing: a transit pass. Such a basic need is easily overlooked, but addressing it is key to helping those who live on the knife’s edge between independence and institutionalization.

“On the face of it, the tent encampment at Mass and Cass is not a women and incarceration issue,” Sered says. “But when you dig a little deeper, you find out that many of those women have standing warrants and open cases. So in the process of moving them out, some of them were actually whisked off to the counties in which they have open cases.”

Sered is one of the co-founders of the Women and Incarceration Project, which seeks to educate policymakers, journalists, and the general public on issues affecting the 1.2 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Between 1980 and 2019, the number of incarcerated women jumped by more than 700% nationally, according to The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based think tank.

“We believe that empirical research is a powerful tool for opposing the U.S. epidemic of incarceration,” the group states on its website.

APPLYING A HUMAN RIGHTS FRAMEWORK

WIP is housed at Suffolk’s Center for Women’s Health & Human Rights, which was founded in 2003 by Amy Agigian, an associate professor of sociology and the center’s director. When viewed through a health and human rights framework, she says, seemingly intractable policy issues like homelessness and women’s incarceration can yield very different approaches and solutions. “We look at the failure of the state to fulfill people’s human rights as a fundamental cause of a lot of the problems,” she explains.

For Agigian, these human rights include not only familiar freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution but also things like access to healthcare, housing, and poverty relief. Many incarcerated women, she adds, are mothers. “So when they get sent away,” she says, “that has a profound impact on children.”

While many more men are imprisoned nationwide, how women experience incarceration often differs from men, and so helping those women often necessitates different strategies. For example, a higher percentage of incarcerated women struggle with substance use than men (potentially related to the fact that women are more likely to receive prescription medication). Indeed, drug-related arrests of women increased 216% over the past decade, compared to a 48% increase for men. Incarcerated women also report significantly higher rates of abuse, chronic illness, and mental health challenges than incarcerated men and nonincarcerated women. “What people find most surprising is that almost all incarcerated women have been victims of violence in their lives,” Sered says. “And for women, the strongest predictor of incarceration later in life is to have been a victim of childhood sexual abuse.”

WIP includes transgender women in its research, Agigian says, “because trans women go through the same kinds of life experiences as any other women, and may be even more likely to have traumatic experiences and be victimized than other women.”

AN INCARCERATION ‘POLICY WINDOW’

Massachusetts is an interesting state for a project like this to launch: While the growth rate for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980, over the last decade the Bay State has seen a steady decline in the number of incarcerated women. As of 2019, Massachusetts had the lowest incarceration rate of females in the country.

But Massachusetts is also home to MCI-Framingham, the second-oldest women’s prison in the U.S. When it opened in 1877, MCI-Framingham was regarded as a pioneering improvement over the carceral status quo, in which women who were jailed alongside men regularly faced violence and sexual abuse. Its early champions included feminist leaders like Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross. But nearly 150 years later, the facility stands in disrepair, and in early 2020 the Massachusetts Department of Correction announced it would close the prison by 2024. State officials said they would build a new “trauma-informed” and “therapeutic” prison for women, at an estimated cost of $50 million—even though fewer than 200 women are currently incarcerated at MCI-Framingham.

WIP researchers saw this moment as an opportunity to lend their multidisciplinary expertise, and began advocating against the construction of a new women’s prison. Local activists with Families for Justice as Healing, a Boston-based grassroots organization, were already fighting back against the state’s proposed plan, holding rallies and filing transparency complaints.

Central to WIP’s case is the lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of prison-based mental health or trauma treatment programs. Instead, the researchers argue that for a fraction of the cost both to incarcerate women annually and to construct a new facility, lawmakers could redirect resources to strategies actually proven to help, such as secure housing. They have also advocated for strategies that would release a large majority of the over 160 women currently held at MCI-Framingham under existing state policies, and for several pending bills in the Legislature that could decarcerate the state even further.

Rachael Cobb, chair of the Political Science & Legal Studies Department, and a political scientist involved in the project, calls this moment an incarceration “policy window” because so many people and institutions are talking about criminal justice from different perspectives—from police commissioners raising alarms about crime, to Black Lives Matter activists calling out patterns of systemic racism, to progressive district attorneys advocating for bail reform.

“We have an opportunity to get out there, because this is a time when op-eds can make a big difference,” Cobb says. “I think people are receptive to the kind of public airing of ideas and sharing of information about incarceration in a way they might not have been a few years ago.”

COMMUNITY-BASED, COMMUNITY-INSPIRED SOLUTIONS

Many Americans have spent little time thinking about incarcerated women, beyond watching Netflix’s award-winning comedy-drama Orange Is the New Black. WIP scholars say a lot of their time is spent trying to simply educate the public and correct misconceptions. “Women who have criminal records really, really struggle to get jobs,” says Sered, who has been following the same cohort of women released from MCI-Framingham for more than a decade.

While men with criminal records face barriers to employment too, they typically find success in jobs, such as furniture moving, that don’t involve client-facing work. Child care, education, and working with the sick and elderly are all typically female-dominated professions, but can be very hard for women with criminal records to access or re-enter.

Over the next year, WIP plans to disseminate its research further, and expand its work with more local community organizations, activists, and legislators. Some ideas they suggest to reduce incarceration include decriminalizing pain-reducing substances and sex work, and having well-trained and resourced medics and social workers on mobile crisis-intervention teams, instead of police, respond to mental health emergency calls.

Suffolk University Law School Professor Erin Braatz, who works in the areas of criminal law and penal reform, says one goal of the WIP effort is to expand the conversation about what exactly punishment should look like in the 21st century. “To even have a hearing in front of the legislature where people are invited to share their ideas on that question would be a success,” she says. What makes the Women and Incarceration Project both unique and valuable, Braatz says, is that it’s “based in the community, and attempting to reckon with a problem that can only truly be addressed through learning from and collaborating with members of that community.”

Then again, she adds, working together on a local level to respond to the needs of the community has long been a Suffolk strength. “I truly believe that real criminal justice reform can only be achieved through these types of local-level projects,” Braatz says. “For that reason, Suffolk is ideally positioned to play a role in shaping these debates and conversations and moving them forward.”

The leaders involved in the effort say they feel lucky to work for a university that values this kind of public engagement, and that encourages scholarly activity beyond the realm of academic publishing. “This work is actually respected at Suffolk,” Sered says. “Nothing that I write is just for academic journals alone. We’re all really committed to getting this research out into the world.”

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