When a woman is sentenced to prison in Massachusetts state courts, there is essentially one place she can go: MCI-Framingham, one of the oldest carceral facilities in the country. The prison is so dilapidated that the state has plans to build a new one to replace it. But prisoners' rights advocates and state lawmakers have pushed back against that plan in a debate that mirrors many national conversations about what to do with increasingly outdated correctional facilities, especially given concerns about mass incarceration. Daniel Medwed, GBH News legal analyst and Northeastern University law professor, joined GBH’s Morning Edition host Paris Alston to discuss the issue. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Paris Alston: First of all, give us some background on MCI-Framingham.

Daniel Medwed: Massachusetts has one significant prison for women. It's located in Framingham, it's known as MCI-Framingham. Now, the term "prison" typically refers to a state correctional facility where people who are convicted of felonies are dispatched, while jail usually means a city or county lockup where people are detained awaiting trial, or where people serve sentences for relatively low-level convictions. As you noted, MCI-Framingham is very old. It's very outdated. It was built in 1877. It's one of the oldest operating prisons in the U.S. And as you also noted, it shows. It's really in a dilapidated state. It was originally designed to house 500 people, which posed some problems about 15 years ago when its population swelled to more than 800. The number of people residing there has dwindled significantly since then, it was about 160 people back in 2021. But still, given its poor layout and its decrepit infrastructure, it takes a lot of staff to keep it up and running. According to some estimates from 2020, the annual expense per prisoner at Framingham is, get this, $162,000. So it really isn't financially viable or even humanitarian given how dilapidated it is.

Alston: So there's already a building there. Why not just renovate it?

Medwed: That's a key part of this debate. If you're going to take money out of the state coffers, why not just retrofit MCI-Framingham, bring it up to modern times? Or should we spend that money to build a smaller, maybe more nimble facility that has contemporary features, either nearby or in another location in the commonwealth? Or, as some people have argued, let's divert those resources to the community that gives rise to this prison pipeline. Let's invest in rehabilitative and preventative measures to deter criminal conduct at the outset.

The commonwealth commissioned an architectural firm to explore these questions, and that firm actually just released a report where it found that it would cost an exorbitant amount, $80 million, to refurbish MCI-Framingham. And even then it would be substandard because of some endemic dormant flaws in its original design.

Alston: What did the architectural firm recommend doing instead of retrofitting MCI-Framingham as it is?

Medwed: Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, it recommended a new facility: A smaller, more modern facility with features that might be somewhat conducive to helping people heal from trauma and other modern contemporary attributes. It would house up to 175 people. Like MCI-Framingham, it would be principally a medium security prison, but again, with some ties to minimum security and prerelease centers to facilitate what's known as prisoner reentry, to help formerly incarcerated people reacclimate into their communities.

Alston: To give us some perspective here, what separates a women's facility from a men's prison other than gender, of course?

Medwed: There are a couple of key differences. One, of course, relates to maternal health care. Data showed that about 70 percent of women prisoners in Massachusetts are mothers. And in our society, of course, women are often the primary caregivers of young children. There are also issues related to pregnancy while incarcerated and efforts to nurse infants while incarcerated. So maternal health care is one sort of obvious difference.

A second major difference is that while the risk of sexual assault is high in every carceral environment, certain populations — women, trans and nonbinary people — have a heightened risk. Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts, which is a very well-regarded nonprofit organization located in Boston, recently conducted research on this. The organization interviewed 22 formerly or currently incarcerated women, and found out that 19 of the 22 had either experienced or witnessed sexual misconduct during their custody, often in the form of male corrections officers abusing their authority, for instance, by leering at or commenting on women's bodies during so-called strip searches when women are unclothed in their search for potential contraband. So those are some of the key differences. If we were to build a new prison, they should be taken into account.

"There's an argument that if we were to build a fancy new prison, there would be structural and institutional incentives to get those beds filled."

Alston: There are some who think that this prison shouldn't be built at all, this new one. So where's that opposition coming from? Is it activists, is it politicians? A mix of both?

Medwed: A mix of both, Paris. So on the political level, both the House and the Senate have passed bills that would create a five-year moratorium on prison construction. But evidently a final version of the legislation hasn't reached the governor's desk. It would be interesting to see what the governor does depending on the timing of its arrival. Also, a lot of activists have pushed back based on the idea that building a prison — in effect, investing in cages — is not necessarily in line with the contemporary conversation, the movement toward decarceration, toward grappling with the problem of mass incarceration. And that instead these funds should be allocated to communities. In essence, that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, that if we can stop problems at the front end by addressing issues like homelessness, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, that might be a better use of our limited resources.

Also, there's an argument that if we were to build a fancy new prison, there would be structural and institutional incentives to get those beds filled and that judges and prosecutors might not have much reticence about dispatching people to correctional facilities.