According to a new report from Wellesley Centers for Women, women of color are disproportionally over-represented in the Bristol County, Massachusetts women’s jail. Although the report focused on one county jail in Massachusetts, it could be representative of countless other jails across the country.
The women on whom the report is based were not convicted of any criminal offense but were being held pretrial. Their lives, and the lives of their children, were disrupted as they lingered in jail, presumably innocent.
The majority of pre-trial detainees were:
Mothers, single parents, and the primary caretakers of their children
Charged with non-violent crimes
Not granted bail; the majority of women who were granted bail were unable to pay bail
Had their children put into the custody of relatives or the state
Yet, Massachusetts is attempting to build another jail for pre-trial women. This attempt is not without opposition. The Ad Hoc Coalition to Stop the Women's Jail in Massachusetts has set up a petition to stop this new jail for women. Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice as Healing and a member of the Ad Hoc Coalition, has been very vocal on this issue. (Full disclosure: Reentry Central’s Managing Editor Beatrice Codianni has worked with James on many projects that advocate for criminal justice-involved women.)
In a Change.org petition against the new jail James stated:
"Massachusetts now spends more than half a billion dollars a year locking up about 10,000 people in jails. The majority of people are there because they cannot make bail, often as little as $300. The vast majority of women who are sentenced have been convicted of non-violent offenses.
No new jails for women should be built in Massachusetts until the two bills below are passed and given a chance to work. If enacted and fully implemented, this legislation would significantly reduce the number of women being held pretrial as well as the number of women who are sentenced to serve time.
1. Bail Reform (H.1584 & S.802) would base pre-trial detention on whether an individual is likely to show up for her court date, rather than on her ability to pay bail. Every year in Massachusetts thousands of women are jailed before trial, many because they cannot afford to pay bail of less than $1,000. According to the Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network, 85% of women held pretrial are charged with non-violent offenses; many are single mothers of children under age 18 whose lives are disrupted.
2. Alternative Sentencing for Primary Caretakers (H.1382) Alternative Sentencing for Primary Caretakers (H would create sentencing alternatives for parents convicted of non-violent offenses who have primary responsibility for their dependent children.
Taxpayers now know that incarceration is often not the best alternative.
It seems that some legislators have not gotten that message.
We believe no new jails should be built without a thorough public debate and before realistic, less costly and less damaging alternatives like bail reform are put in place and given a chance to work. Taxpayer money should be used to invest in pretrial services and community-based, community-run wellness alternatives, which are much less costly in terms of dollars and also in terms of the emotional, psychological, physical and relational harms experienced by men and women who needlessly spend weeks or months in jail.
Supporters of this bill argue that we need a new jail for women to improve the living conditions of the women who are incarcerated. We can improve their living conditions by getting them out of jail through bail reform and alternatives to incarceration!”
For more information on the Ad Hoc Coalition to Stop the Women's Jail in Massachusetts contact Lois Ahrens of The Real Cost of Prisons Project at Lois@realcostofprisons.org.at Lois@realcostofprisons.org.
Read Pretrial Incarcerated Women: An Analysis of Women in Bristol County Jail here.