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Prison reforms for women, elderly urged by advocates at State House

BOSTON — As the legislative session winds to a close July 31, advocates for certain prison reforms are hopeful two bills will find their way onto the governor’s desk. One measure that imposes a moratorium on the construction of new prison facilities, and the other would extend parole review to those who turn 55 and served more than 50% of their sentence.

Advocates gathered at the State House Wednesday to show support for the bills.

The bill imposing a construction moratorium revisits a similar measure passed by both branches in 2022, only to be vetoed by former Gov. Charlie Baker. The bill was attached to a $5 billion spending measure, and while Baker approved the expenditures, he nixed the section pertaining to the construction, claiming it would hamper the state’s efforts to address its aging facilities and meet the needs of the changing prison population.

Advocates hope that the second time is the charm.

The proposal puts a five-year moratorium on building new facilities. The refiled bill makes exceptions for keeping facilities up to code and in good repair without expanding bed capacity.

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security declined to comment on the pending legislation.

Filed by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, the bill could be tacked to the $2.8 billion economic development bill due to be discussed Thursday by the Senate in its formal session.

A measure filed by Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, addresses inmates serving lengthy sentences. It would require a parole review if the person has served more than half of their sentence or at least 15 years, depending on the circumstances, and has reached their 55th birthday.

Speaking from the Grand Staircase to the supporters, Sabadosa discussed the origin of the bill, finding an email from one of her constituents who sought to have his son released from jail during the COVID-19 crisis.

“It made sense to parole people to lower the incarceration rate,” Sabadosa said. The measure is in the House Committee on Ways and Means, a step closer to being taken up by the entire branch for a vote.

The state Department of Corrections declared its intention of closing MCI-Framingham, the state’s only facility for women by 2024, setting aside $50 million for the construction of a more modern and smaller facility. Included in the DOC plans was $20 million for a new youth facility.

Opponents to the plans include Families for Justice as Healing and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and local advocates, including Women & Incarceration Project at Suffolk University in Boston. In a report, Women & Violent Crime, issued when the moratorium was first proposed during the 2021-22 legislative session, the group argued that the funds could better be used to increase services for women, increase community and state supports, and to build up families and community resilience.

In the report, the group noted that “women have very low rates of arrests and convictions for violent crimes.” The report indicated that fewer than 150 women were being held at MCI-Framingham having been adjudicated for violent crimes at the time it was released.

Sashi James, co-director of Families for Justice as Healing, said there are better uses for the construction funds, including establishing safe and affordable housing for women, job training programs and investing in other community support systems.

“We can reimagine our communities, build new infrastructure, a new future,” James said. A new prison, with a 70-year expected service life, she said, would serve only to set back the community rather than move it forward.

Angie Jefferson, now a 53-year-old Charlestown resident, spent 31 years in MCI-Framingham and has been “home” for almost two years. Her advocacy for shuttering Framingham and barring construction of a new facility is her way of fulfilling her dream while she was behind the wall — of tearing the prison down.

“I had a vision,” Jefferson said, describing the conditions at Framingham as “horrific” and wearing on her mental and physical health and her soul. “There was asbestos, mice, bugs, mold.”

Jefferson was tried for murder and sentenced to life without parole in the stabbing death of Anthony Deas, 22, on June 30, 1990. Jefferson was 20 at the time and in a relationship with the man. A parole hearing in January 2022 saw her conviction reduced to second-degree murder, and she was subsequently released later that year. Jefferson works at the Families for Justice as Healing group as the participatory defense transformer coordinator.

Adjustment to her new life was challenging. “It was kind of scary, but I had the support of the organization and my family,” Jefferson said.

“There is no need for jails,” Jefferson said, explaining that there are so many ways to help women in crisis. “We need to bring women home, get them jobs, supports, let them live.”

Jefferson was joined by Chiteara Thomas of Boston, her “neighbor” for 17 years in MCI-Framingham. Thomas was also serving a life sentence for murder in the 2006 arson fire of a three-family building in Brockton in which a woman died.

“The transition has been good for the most part,” Thomas said, noting that she is still struggling to find permanent housing. She has community supports and works at Teen Empowerment as a violence intervention and prevention coordinator.

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