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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 addiction.

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 Healey

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 mcnamara@globe.com.

Copyright 2005 - The Boston Globe

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     Last Updated on Wednesday July 25, 2007.