Hard choices, hard time
By Eileen McNamara, Globe
Columnist | May 25, 2005
Will a familiar message
strike a deeper chord if it is presented between hard covers?
That is the hope as one
reads Cristina Rathbone's compelling new book, examining the
long-documented and long-ignored deficiencies at MCI-Framingham, the
oldest active prison for women in the United States.
Five years in the making,
''A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars" exposes it all: the
overcrowding, the shoddy healthcare, the depression born of separation
from children in a prison packed with nonviolent offenders, most of them
incarcerated for drug or property crimes that sprang from poverty and
It was not an easy story
for Rathbone to tell. Twice, she had to turn to the Civil Liberties Union
of Massachusetts to challenge efforts by the Department of Correction to
restrict her access to inmates at the state's only prison for women. Such
was the paranoia of the state agency that her second lawsuit was aimed at
orders preventing her from attending something as benign as a Girl Scouts
meeting with inmates and their daughters. The taxpayers paid for that
frivolous and fruitless restriction.
Her previous book was about
troubled teenagers in New York City. The new book was a logical outgrowth
of that work, she said. ''If I had known how difficult it would be, how
overwhelming and depressing, I do not think I would have done it. I would
not have had the energy to fight. But because I knew so little about it, I
just pressed ahead."
Rathbone's findings about
the critical need to bolster the relationship between incarcerated women
and their children, told in a narrative style that interweaves history and
policy issues with the life stories of individual women, echo those of the
Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of
Massachusetts in Boston. In a report issued this spring, the center's
researchers cited a lack of coordination among state agencies, from the
Department of Social Services to the Department of Mental Health, that
undermines families. It is little wonder that so many children of
incarcerated women wind up in the system themselves.
The state lacks the most
fundamental data, including the number of children with mothers behind
bars and their whereabouts, the report found. Representative Kay Khan of
Newton got the House to agree to a $100,000 line item in the budget for
the fiscal year that begins July 1 to study the needs of incarcerated
women and their children, an effort supported by Lieutenant Governor Kerry
But none of this is new.
Last summer, the Governor's Commission on Corrections Reform, headed by
Scott Harshbarger, a former state attorney general, urged the state to do
what his panel was not designed to do: address the problems particular to
Framingham prison. Commissioner Kathleen M. Dennehy has appointed an
External Female Offender Review Panel, but it is hard to imagine that yet
another short-lived study group — this one's mandate expires in July —
will bring about long-term change at MCI-Framingham.
Studies are cheaper than
action. Thirteen years ago, after several deaths at Framingham, the
Legislature appointed a similar committee to investigate conditions.
Little changed, for the simple reason that there is little political will
and even less sympathy for women in prison.
Rathbone is discovering
just how little as she begins to talk about her book in public. On talk
radio, from Massachusetts to Utah, she has fielded questions from
listeners incredulous to hear her suggest that most of the women inside
Framingham's walls are not so different from the women outside. ''They
think it is ridiculous of me to say such a thing, but I try to insist that
this is indeed the case," she said. ''Given the situations these women
found themselves in, I cannot say I would not have made the same choices.
What I want readers to see is how narrowed their choices really were."
Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She
can be reached at
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