Peter Reuell 508-626-4428
Crowded house at MCI-Framingham Saturday, November 26, 2005
Metrowest Daily News
The state's only prison for women is more than two and a half times over capacity, records from the state Department of Correction show, and officials blame county jail systems that lack cell blocks for females.

Though its capacity was expanded in 1991 to hold 384 inmates, MCI-Framingham today houses more than 600, according to DOC records.  The day-to-day population fluctuates, officials said, so exact figures are difficult to come by.

Not all of those doing time in Framingham are doing hard time, though.

Of the 614 inmates listed in a recent count by the DOC, 149, or nearly 24 percent of the total, were inmates awaiting trial.

What's more, officials and prison watchdogs added, many of the 451 women convicted and serving time in Framingham were charged with relatively minor, non-violent offenses, which would usually result in sentences to a county facility, such as a local house of correction.

Only a few counties have separate facilities for women, so more than 80 percent of women who wind up behind bars in the Bay State do their time in Framingham.

"There's been a long-standing history in the commonwealth of sending county women to Framingham," MCI-Framingham Superintendent Lynn Bissonnette said this week.  "Whether that trend is going to continue is going to depend on a multitude of factors."

What crimes would result in someone serving county time?

Typically, Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley said, they are lower-level, non-violent offenses.

"Anything in district court where you get under a year in prison," she said.  "Basically, (they're) misdemeanor offenses."

Things such as non-violent drug offenses, possession with intent to distribute and a host of motor vehicle offenses would be included in the list, she said.

The number of women who commit such lower-level crimes is significant, Bissonnette said.

From July through September, she said, Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk and Worcester counties sent more than 700 women to MCI-Framingham.

A report on the issues facing female prisoners should be released by the end of the year, Bissonnette said, and is expected to lay out a series of reforms aimed at improving services for women behind bars.

"I think, for the first time that I'm aware of, the issues at MCI-Framingham are reaching the forefront," Bissonnette said.  "I'm really, really pleased with that, because now there's a dialog."

"There are many women at MCI-Framingham who could be moved out to counties," Rep. Kay Khan said.

The Newton Democrat was one of several legislators who served on the subcommittee studying challenges in dealing with female inmates, and this week said keeping low-level offenders at the county level would do more than simply solve the over-crowding problem in Framingham.

"There could be much more enhancement of the facilities around helping women connect to their families and more to be done with re-entry," Khan said.  "If they're stuck out at Framingham and they come from the western part of the state, it's harder to keep that connection with their family (or) with their children.

"It's difficult to figure out how you're going to get a job in the western part of the state if you' Framingham."

Those community and family connections can be crucial as inmates are released, and can often be the difference in determining whether someone returns to prison.

"Keeping them closer to home allows for a smoother re-entry," said Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services.  "When you've got people tied to their community, including their family and their friends, perhaps an employer and a mental health treatment provider...there's a lower recidivism rate."

Over-crowding like that seen in MCI-Framingham is more than simply unhealthy, Walker said.  It can be downright dangerous.

It's estimated about one-quarter of those in prison suffer from some form of mental illness, she said.  Add the tension, frustration and anger generated by overcrowded conditions, and many are prompted to lash out.

"It leads to a lot of pressure and a lot of tension," Walker said.  "It's very difficult to get well."

Unfortunately, convincing county officials to hold onto potentially thousands of inmates each year won't be easy either, officials said -- or cheap.

"There doesn't seem to be money for a lot of this, and it's not really a vocal constituency," Coakley said.  "It becomes a budget thing."

"We need to help the counties shift their thinking but also provide the resources so they can start housing their women," said Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland.  "It's an institutional thing -- for so many years county inmates, whether awaiting trial or sentencing, most of them come to MCI-Framingham."

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