Activists unite to protest against a new women’s prison



Protestors gathered at the State House to pressure the governor to prevent the construction of a new women’s prison.

When school let out at 2:55 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 9, a group of students made their way from their classrooms at the high school to the T, to Park St. station before finally ascending Beacon Hill to the Massachusetts State House. The reason they were there was to demand a moratorium on new prisons and jails in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (MA).

Dozens of people from across the commonwealth gathered on Beacon St. in front of the General Hooker entrance to the State House. After a number of speakers, the crowd began chants of “pass the moratorium bill,” “resource communities, release women,” and “no new women’s prison.”

According to Kira Matthews, the MA campaign organizer for the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and an organizer of the event, the protest focused on women’s prisons because MA currently has plans to build a new women’s prison, a project estimated to cost $50 million.

“The [Department of Corrections (DOC)] is just not very transparent about what’s actually happening, but we do know that HDR is an architecture firm that has been contracted by Massachusetts to build the new women’s prison,” Matthews said. “We also know that there is a $21.5 million children’s jail that’s in the works in Taunton. We know that Maura Healey has recently met with the DOC to talk about plans for that to be happening. So we’re just here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Among those present at the protest were social justice group Architects Against Prisons, local unions, local religious groups and the Boston Area Brigade of Activist Musicians. The brigade marched alongside protesters playing songs on brass and percussion.

Isaiah Briggs, a divinity student and Somerville resident, led chants in front of the statehouse. In an interview, he brought up the fact that poor people, Black people and other marginalized groups are incarcerated at disproportionate rates. He said that society often forces marginalized people to take desperate action, often leading to addiction and violence. Rather than punishing people for taking these actions they feel compelled to take, Briggs suggested alternative approaches to these issues.

“It just preys on marginalized groups. We need restorative and rehabilitative approaches to some of these issues,” Briggs said. “We need better education. We need healthcare. Crime is a sociological problem, people aren’t bad. The conditions force desperate people to do desperate things.”

After protesting outside for nearly an hour, the protest moved inside the State House. One by one activists filed through the metal detectors and placed their bags on the x-ray machine as they made their way inside. Once inside, everyone gathered on the steps between the second and third floors for more chants and more speeches.

Among those who spoke was Mallory Hanora, who worked with Families for Justice as Healing and The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls to organize the event. In her speech, she spoke about what rehabilitative approaches to criminal justice could look like.

“Sometimes we think about alternatives to incarceration as a building where someone has to go, but sometimes alternatives means making sure we meet people’s basic needs, like a guaranteed income, like paying for their rent so they can be stabilized while they do the healing that they needed to do,” Hanora said. “And then making sure people have access to mental health care and physical healthcare that they need. All of those are addressing the root causes of why people were incarcerated in the first place.”

On the stairs, activists displayed a large banner with the words “No new women’s prison! Free the Framingham 200!”, referring to the 194 women incarcerated at MCI Framingham, a women’s prison 20 miles outside of Boston. The banner depicted one heart for each of those 194 women and displayed many of their names.

The protesters demanded that all 194 women incarcerated in Framingham be released. Senior Alice MacGarvie Thompson was among those chanting for their freedom.

“I came to the protest because I don’t think I’m free until every woman in MCI Framingham is free. And I don’t think I’m free until every person in prison is free, abolition needs to be the future,” MacGarvie Thompson said. “Prison is supposed to be a solution. It’s supposed to prevent people from doing bad things, but we really see prison causing more harm than good. Abolition isn’t about not addressing when harm happens. It’s about addressing it in a way that prisons don’t. It’s about dealing with it through a transformative approach to justice as opposed to a purely carceral one.”

After the speeches and chants on the stairs, the group disbanded as individuals went to visit their own representative’s offices. Activists were each given a handout to give to their legislators. The handout contained information about An Act establishing a jail and prison moratorium (SD.661 / HD.799), which would stop the construction of all jails and prisons in Massachusetts for the next five years.

If the moratorium were enacted, it would prevent the construction of two new prisons in Massachusetts with plans to be built in the next five years: one for women and one for children.

Around half an hour later when protesters had finished meeting with their representatives, they gathered once again to deliver a letter to Governor Maura Healey. Among other things, the letter demanded that she sign the moratorium, which was approved by the legislature last legislative session, but was vetoed by former Governor Charlie Baker. The letter also demanded that Healey grant clemency to certain women, especially those who are serving long sentences, those with health complications, and elders.

“The governor of Massachusetts has the power to grant clemency, which means that they could shorten or end somebody’s sentence,” Hanora said. “We haven’t seen that happen for women in many, many, many years. We’re asking for the governor to make clemency a regular part of what she does, that she’s regularly and consistently looking at petitions.”

However, the group was not able to deliver the letter to Healey’s office right away because another activist group, Extinction Rebellion, had already occupied her office to demand a moratorium on new fossil fuel power plants. The two groups spoke with one another and ended up joining each other in chants for both causes, shouting messages such as “free her” and “act with urgency, this is a climate emergency.”

Eventually, the prison letter was delivered to the Governor’s office. A member of Healey’s staff accepted it on the Governor’s behalf.

The action as a whole was part of the Free Her campaign, a movement to shut down women’s prisons across New England, something that Sashi James, who has experienced incarceration first hand, has been heavily involved in. When James was six years old, her father was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Her mom was later sentenced to two.

“If they build the bed, they’re going to learn how to fill the bed and so that is what we’re trying to stop,” James said. “We have enough prisons and jails right now and we just need to pause and shift investment.”

Hanora says that anyone interested in getting involved or learning more about the issue can visit