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Several States Are Building New Women’s Prisons — Can They Be Stopped?

Organizers across the country are working to halt the expansion of the carceral system.

Shanita Jefferson talks about her mother at a Families for Justice as Healing rally led by formerly incarcerated and directly impacted women and girls in support of Angela Jefferson's motion for a new trial outside Suffolk County District Attorneys Office in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 18, 2021.

Tiff Harrington spent 15 years of her life under Department of Corrections (DOC) supervision in Vermont, where she gave birth to two children while incarcerated at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility — a prison with a particularly bad reputation.

In 2019, Vermont DOC came under fire when Seven Days, a local independent newspaper, reported that guards at Chittenden Regional engaged in drug use and sexually abused the incarcerated women they oversaw. Public outcry only grew when an incarcerated woman named Penny Powers filed a whistleblower complaint against former Chittenden Regional “shift supervisor of the year” Daniel Zorzi, alleging he took her and another woman offsite to engage in drug use and sex. The Vermont Agency of Human Services proposed immediate reforms to DOC policy. There are currently plans to build a new and expanded women’s prison in Vermont, leaving policy reforms to fall by the wayside.

Now an advocate for incarcerated women on the outside, Harrington is wary of the effort to build a new prison to replace Chittenden — especially if it means increasing the population size.

“It’s a lot of beds,” she said. “Where are you getting these people to fill these beds?”

Of greater concern is that the systemic problems that plague Chittenden will simply be replicated at a new facility.

“A building is just a brick-and-mortar thing. The system is a whole other ball of wax,” Harrington said.

According to a spokesperson for Vermont DOC, the proposed conceptual designs and bed counts for the new women’s facility are “significantly smaller than the existing building.” More broadly, he said the state is “seeking to reduce its carceral footprint, not expand it.”

Public outcry regarding prison abuses eventually leading to prison expansion is not a unique phenomenon. Across the U.S., state agencies and lawmakers are proposing new women’s prisons in response to conditions inside existing facilities. Their plans to expand state carceral systems will be funded by taxpayer dollars. However, as Harrington noted, the worst abuses of prison are built into operations, not brick and mortar.

Reimagining Communities

Ballooning by 834% from 1978 to 2015, the incarceration of cis women has quickly become the next phase of mass incarceration. As more women are incarcerated, their time in prison plays out differently than men’s. For example, more women incarcerated in the U.S. are held in jails than in prisons, and more than half of those jailed have not been convicted of a crime. Jails are known to be especially dangerous and poorly suited to provide programs and health care to women. But states’ overreliance on local jails has led to another problem: new prison builds that are paid for with taxpayer dollars.

More than six states across the country have new women’s prisons in progress. Meanwhile, real alternatives to prison, like community-based sentencing and decarceration initiatives, are largely ignored.

As state legislatures pass bills to appropriate funds for new prisons and contract with firms for construction, abolitionists on the ground are fighting new prison builds because they know that “if they build it, they will fill it.” Legislators proposing new women’s prisons see their projects as positive contributions to the lives of their incarcerated constituents. Community activists, however, insist that prisons only create more generational harm, which is why they are fighting for a future where prisons don’t exist.

South Dakota, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Vermont have active plans for new women’s prisons. Across these states, population overflow and poor living conditions inside older facilities are the primary justifications for new, multimillion-dollar projects. While legislators propose and approve expensive new builds, activists like Harrington argue that officials are not looking critically at the daily realities of the incarcerated women in their custody.

In the New England region, on-the-ground organizers led by community organizations like the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls are throwing as many wrenches in the gears as possible to stop new prisons from being built. As they fight to stop construction, they are also building out service and sentencing alternatives that will keep their incarcerated loved ones out of lockup for good.

Andrea James, the founder and executive director of the National Council, told Prism that some of the most important work their organization does is reimagining communities.

“Because fine — build the prisons. It will take us a while, but our people won’t be in them,” James said.

Organizers in James’ home state of Massachusetts have been most successful in holding back the construction of a new women’s prison. In February 2020, efforts led by the abolitionist nonprofit Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH) considerably slowed the contracting process on the prison when they discovered that the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance failed to adhere to a legal provision that requires the agency to advertise requests for proposals in local newspapers. Finding ways to make state bureaucracy work for them is just one of many creative ways the movement in Massachusetts is fighting tooth and nail against the construction of a new women’s prison.

Since early 2021, FJAH and the National Council have co-led the campaign calling for a prison and jail moratorium in Massachusetts while also engineering legal alternatives to incarceration. For example, FJAH was instrumental in passing legislation that allows some women who are caretakers or who are elderly to leave prison or avoid it altogether. Over the last five years, FJAH, the National Council, and allies have created a blueprint for how to fight the expanding prison-industrial complex on the state level. Now, organizers with FreeHer Vermont are following suit, leading many to wonder if this model could also be useful in other states.

The Massachusetts blueprint is divided into three tactics: political advocacy, reimagining communities, and shifting narratives around incarceration. One of the first steps for each state is to get a prison and jail construction moratorium bill into the legislature, as Massachusetts and Vermont organizers have both successfully done. Work from all three areas is supported largely by volunteers, which can often be a challenge.

“We’ve managed to galvanize support from people across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; we’re gaining a huge amount of support following the model that the beautiful volunteers of People Not Prisons created for us here,” said James.

People Not Prisons is the statewide volunteer network that FJAH facilitates. James refers to the reliance on wide networks of committed volunteers anchored by smaller groups of paid organizers as the “Bernie/Obama model,” also known as distributed organizing.

“Tools of Oppression and Control”

Scholars and organizers have different theories about what created the recent boom in the caging of women. Broadly, it seems that decades of over-incarceration of poor Black and brown men put more economic and social pressure on the women left behind. When combined with thinning social services, growing poverty, addiction, and stacked sentencing, many women of color in particular stood little chance against mass incarceration. Other drivers of mass incarceration, like the war on drugs, have had more devastating effects on Black and Latina women than on their white counterparts.

DOCs often insist that they are not harmful institutions but rather neutral containers for the people that the courts send to them. According to James, however, prisons are “tools of oppression and control.” To James, prisons exist “for all the issues and social problems that the powers that be don’t want to invest in, don’t want to treat with humanity, don’t want to even acknowledge.”

To officials, it seems a more worthwhile investment to simply build new prisons than to invest comparable dollars in solving social problems. This is the case in South Dakota, where there are shovels in the ground for a new women’s prison near Rapid City. The existing women’s prison has been overcrowded for years, with nine women currently housed in cramped “not humane conditions.”

“We have three sets of bunks stacked three high, and then they have not even barely a cubby to put their things in,” said South Dakota state Rep. Linda Duba of the rooms where the nine women are living.

“My concern is if we continue with the way that we sentence people, we will fill that prison as well the day it opens,” Duba said. That is indeed what’s expected to happen, according to an official with the South Dakota Department of Corrections.

In February, South Dakota Secretary of the Department of Corrections Kellie Wasko went before the Senate Committee on Appropriations to request an additional $20 million in funds for the Rapid City prison. At the end of her remarks, she said, “If we don’t do something to address the substance use in South Dakota, we’re going to open a facility, and we’re gonna be right at capacity.” The new women’s prison in Rapid City will cost an estimated $87 million, which is roughly 51% of the requested 2024 budget for all behavioral health services in the state.

Wasko has been criticized for her oversight of the prison system, as well as the price of a new men’s prison that will be the costliest state-funded capital project in South Dakota history.

In Louisiana, where they lock up a higher percentage of their people than any democratic country on earth, construction on a new $149 million women’s prison began in 2022. After the state’s sole women’s prison — the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women — flooded in 2016, about 1,000 incarcerated women have been held across several state prisons and local jails.

Syrita Steib is the CEO of Operation Restoration, a group that provides services to incarcerated women and their families in Louisiana. She told Prism that sentencing traps have contributed to the explosion in women’s incarceration in the state.

“People really aren’t paying attention to how charges are stacked specifically with women,” Steib said. “They’re given these child endangerment and neglect charges because the children are present during a crime.”

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, women are more likely to be incarcerated in jail for drug or property crimes than for violent offenses. When coupled with women’s roles as parents and community caretakers, this often means they experience longer prison terms. In effect, women are being punished twice: once for their crime and once for their role as caretakers that may have led to a child being present during a crime.

“Women go to prison for crimes that men don’t even get arrested for,” Steib said.

It’s well known that women are punished for surviving the violence of poverty and patriarchy. As the scandal surrounding Chittenden Regional in Vermont suggests, incarcerated women are often subjected to sexual and gender-based harassment and violence while in custody. Studies also show that a high percentage of women serving time have already experienced sexual or domestic violence in their lifetimes, and many of them are serving time for defending themselves against an abuser. Survived and Punished, a national organization working to free criminalized survivors of domestic violence, takes its name from this phenomenon.

Women across the U.S. have also long been criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes — especially if they were substance dependent, according to journalist and author Victoria Law, who has extensively covered women’s criminalization and incarceration.

According to Law, even before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned the constitutional right to abortion in 2022, substance-dependent pregnant people and parents received particularly harsh sentencing.

“Even before Dobbs, we saw this idea for pregnant people that if they were substance using, they should be sent to jail or prison because that was somehow a better environment for them,” Law said.

Since the end of Roe v. Wade in 2022, states nationwide have further restricted abortion access, increasing the risk of criminalization for pregnancy outcomes. Many of these laws have misleading names, like the Care for Women, Children, and Families Act, though they only increase harm for women and families. This is another major contradiction in the legislative logic driving new women’s prisons.

“Even though, in jails or prisons, there’s often substandard medical care, medical neglect, violence, chaos, abuse by guards, and every pregnant person in jail or prison I have ever spoken to said, ‘You can get illegal drugs more easily than you can get fresh vegetables as part of your meal,’” Law said.

Trauma-Informed Prisons?

Prison boosters across the country are painting their new designs as “trauma-informed” while emphasizing the need for programming space that allows incarcerated women to take part in classes and groups. Plans for Massachusetts and Louisiana women’s prisons both feature maternity wings where women who give birth in prison can have limited time with their newborns. The original South Dakota plans also featured a “mother-baby unit,” but that was removed to cut costs after Wasko was criticized for her high-price projects.

Efforts to reframe institutions of punishment as service providers are part of a sinister national trend. DOCs everywhere are rebranding as quickly as they can by co-opting abolitionist concerns about reproductive and gender justice.

The California Department of Corrections’ promotion of the “California model,” based on the “Nordic model,” may sound good to some, but when juxtaposed against the abolitionist demand to close 10 prisons in California by 2025, it’s a clear distraction. The consulting firm that was contracted to produce a report on the future of women’s incarceration in Massachusetts also mentioned the Nordic model as an inspiration.

Recent shifts in Colorado show that states are willing to reorganize and redress punishment around gender lines but will not soon cede their grip on people or funds. Conversations about possibilities for decarceration, parole, and pardon are missing from the majority of the reporting on a new trans women’s unit in Denver.

On the East Coast, New York City’s Gloria Steinem-approved proposal for a “feminist jail” received widespread criticism.

To many incarcerated women and allies, the promise of robust programming in adequate space feels phony. The Massachusetts DOC, like most prisons nationwide, has a poor track record of providing even adequate care to the women in their custody, so the idea of robust programming seems unlikely.

Boston University Metropolitan College paused its Prison Education Program at the Massachusetts prison MCI-Framingham earlier this year due to space, staffing, and curriculum complications. And when women incarcerated at MCI-Framingham testified virtually at a legislative hearing last year, all expressed their support for the Jail and Prison Construction Moratorium, and many discussed the lack of prison programming.

Nationally, incarcerated women serve an average of 32 months. Vermont and Massachusetts each have extremely low numbers of women serving life without parole, with just three in Vermont and three in Massachusetts. Rather than fighting for sentencing changes and other concrete efforts that will reduce the prison population, legislatures remain eager to invest in surface-level fixes, like programming space.

The number of incarcerated women in Vermont is currently hovering around 100, with half of those women being held pretrial. To Harrington, this is only more reason to redirect funds from a new prison.

“So you think about the number of women and the amount of money that they are proposing to spend, you could give each of these women a house or car or job — whatever they need,” Harrington said. “You could do so much for them.”

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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