Reproductive Rights Behind Bars: Inside One of the Oldest Women’s Prisons in the U.S.

What protections exist for those rendered essentially rightless by the state? What happens to women, their bodies and their communities when we incarcerate them?

More than one million women are currently behind bars or controlled by the criminal justice system. The amount of incarcerated women has increased at practically double the rate of men since 1985, and the number of incarcerated women has increased by more than 700 percent since 1980. (Pxfuel / Creative Commons)

Built in 1877, Massachusetts Correctional Institution Framingham (MCI–Framingham) is one of the oldest women’s prisons still in operation in the United States. As of July, 163 people lived at MCI–Framingham, a medium-security correctional facility for female offenders serving Middlesex County in Massachusetts. Well over two-thirds of the women there are serving time for non-violent crimes, often involving substance abuse

With four Massachusetts state representatives and their respective interns and aides, I entered MCI–Framingham on a rather cloudy Monday this summer. The outside is gray, the entrance not unlike what you may have seen in movies—quiet, except when the booming voices of correction officers can be heard from down the hall, and concerned with safety (but seemingly more so for the safety of visitors than of the incarcerated population).

Once admitted, I sat down with Superintendent Kristie Ladouceur; women’s health nurse practitioner Dana Raberov; and head nurse Kaili Tejeda to discuss the reproductive health and rights of incarcerated women

To preface the conversation below, which paints a picture of the reality for women inside MCI–Framingham, here are some standards I know to be true in law: 

  • It is illegal to shackle a pregnant woman in Massachusetts, as per the Anti-Shackling Bill signed into law in 2014. 
  • The medical needs of any incarcerated person cannot go ignored, and they remain somewhat autonomous in making personal healthcare decisions. For example, women entering MCI–Framingham pregnant are not having abortions automatically thrust upon them. Rather, choice and autonomy are emphasized by the medical staff to the incarcerated population. 
  • There is no constitutional right to having visitations as an incarcerated person; however, studies show the importance of visitations to mental health, as well as to promoting a healthy parent/child relationship which benefits both the parent and the child, for those incarcerated with children. 
  • Incarcerated people are entitled to an environment free of sexual misconduct between any party or parties in the prison, as per the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003. 

Ladouceur and the other health professionals vouched for what I had hoped would be true: They said the women incarcerated at MCI–Framingham are getting the healthcare—specifically, reproductive healthcare—they deserve and are entitled to by law. The healthcare given to incarcerated women is the “same as what is given to the community,” said Ladouceur. Maternal fetal medicine visits, deliveries, birth control options and abortions happen at Boston Medical Center (BMC), and an ob-gyn visits the prison twice per month. 

The women are given as many pads or tampons as they need when they menstruate, the prison staff told us. Pregnant women get 300 extra calories in their meals per day, as is necessary to support proper fetal development. Ladouceur said no pregnant women are shackled in labor or delivery, under any condition or in any environment. Spectrum Health Systems, a nonprofit serving people with addiction and mental health disorders, provides suitable healthcare for all, they said. Lawyers consistently push for the adjudication of cases involving pregnant or mothering women in an attempt to avoid termination of parental rights. The “Catch the Hope” program exists to support mothering women with a focus on family preservation.

However, six MCI–Framingham women we spoke to shared that what we were told by officials is quite far from the reality of life and womanhood in prison. The women who informed this piece volunteered to be part of my interview process, knowing that the topic would be reproductive rights for those incarcerated. 

There are not enough menstrual supplies to go around, and women in the prison are given a diaper to wear if their flow is heavier than a small pantyliner can handle, according to Stephanie, who has been living at MCI–Framingham for about seven years. Women are not provided with necessities such as high-quality deodorant and hairbrushes, but rather are required to use commissary funding. If no one on the outside is depositing anything into their commissary credit, they simply go without. 

While Ladouceur herself acknowledged that pregnant women need at least 300 extra calories per day, the women I spoke to at MCI–Framingham told us that pregnant women are sometimes given only an additional carrot or celery stick in lieu of substantial, caloric, nutritional food. 

Three of the six women we spoke to have children. One woman, Nia, said she has not seen her two children in over 15 months—despite a strong, proven need for newborn-mother bonding time immediately after birth.

Nia had a pregnant roommate at one point. She told us her roommate was shackled, was not given special bedding, had a male correction officer watch her give birth, and was not given any visitation with her baby. It seems an inconvenience to the staff at MCI–Framingham to house pregnant women—indeed, when Tejeda and Raberov confirmed to us that no current incarcerated women were pregnant at their facility, Ladouceur seemed to let out a sigh of relief.

A rally calling for prison abolition in California in January 2013. (Daniel Arauz / Wikimedia Commons)

The women we spoke to do not feel as though their health services are taken seriously by officials or the medical professionals the prison connects them to. They expressed that going to BMC was a sort of last resort—they are often sent to Lemuel Shattuck Hospital (“Shattuck”) instead, a prison hospital facility with an alleged history of a lack of care for and interest in its patients. For example, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shattuck, with its mere 28 beds, faced multiple lawsuits—such as one pursued by the Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. These lawsuits alleged a lack of medical care and malpractice that resulted in outbreaks across Massachusetts prison facilities

Reproductive Justice for the Justice-Less

Prisons are sites of reproductive injustice as well as social injustice. The term “reproductive justice” encompasses the full scope of women’s reproductive lives, from decisions about whether and when to have children, to the ability to raise children with dignity. In the confines of a prison, there are undoubtedly barriers to abortion care and barriers to safe childbirth. Mass imprisonment is, in and of itself, a barrier to reproductive justice. Jails, in their inception, were designed for men.

To be sure, the Primary Caretakers Bill of Massachusetts was passed in 2018 to promote alternatives to incarceration for primary caretakers. Women with children who were convicted of non-violent crimes were to be offered a community-based alternative to incarceration, with only a few strict amendments in place. After all, studies have shown that problems like mental illness, substance use disorders and homelessness are more appropriately addressed outside of the criminal justice system altogether. However, the current population of incarcerated mothers shows that this change has had little real-world effect.

Before we left, state Representatives Lindsay Sabadosa and Liz Miranda asked a final question: What should we leave here knowing about incarcerated women?

By and large, the women we spoke to want prison abolition. They demanded to be contracted with a new HMO who takes their medical needs seriously. They want help with preparation to re-enter society. They want to be looked at independently of men’s facilities. But most of all, as one woman poignantly put it, they “want to be seen as people—capable of thought, of growth, and of change. It’s that simple.”

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Marty Garbarini is an editorial fellow at Ms. A senior at Smith College, she studies government and public policy as well as the study of women and gender. Marty is particularly interested in the rights of incarcerated women and prison abolition, as well as election coverage and the workings of the U.S. Government. In her free time, Marty could sing you any Broadway ballad or make you a mean friendship bracelet.