The Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Framingham is the U.S’s oldest women’s prison still in operation

The exterior of Sherborn Reformatory for Women in 1877 | Photo courtesy of Framingham Public Library

The Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) at Framingham is the U.S.’s oldest women’s prison still in operation. In 2019, MCI-Framingham was closed indefinitely: “The latest Department of Public Health inspection report for MCI-Framingham, from June 2019, listed 107 repeat violations, from plumbing that was not in good repair to a dirty kitchen to rusted and moldy showers to lights that were out. There were not enough toilets per inmate in one unit, hot water was not hot in many places, and rodent droppings were observed in multiple rooms.” Until its closure, MCI-Framingham was operating at full capacity, almost 450 beds.

MCI-Framingham’s 2020 closure is the result of the city’s effort to rebuild and reform the prison, a dangerous proposal masquerading as a humanitarian effort in good faith. As Mallory Hanora said: “… if they build a larger prison or a newer prison, they’re going to fill it” Hanora is the executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, an advocacy group based outside of Boston that fights for the end to the incarceration of women and girls. She is correct, and she aptly notes one of the many paradoxes of prison. The state has proposed a budget of $50 million to replace MCI-Framingham with a new prison in Norfolk, a town just thirty minutes south. Families for Justice as Healing worked with State Senator Joanne Comefore to introduce S. Bill 2030 to the Massachusetts State Legislature in 2021, a moratorium that would immediately halt any new construction for the next five years.

Lee Peck Unitt is a Malaysian-American woman who was incarcerated at MCI-Framingham for six years. During her sentence at Framingham, Unitt worked tirelessly at the jail’s law library to collect testimony, formal medical documents, and state reports to assemble what would become the basis for three lawsuits: Lee P. Unitt v. Luis Spencer 2014, Lee P. Unitt v. Daniel Bennett et al. and Unitt v. Bissonette (2018). The lawsuits outline the use of excessive force, inadequate healthcare, and unsafe living conditions in the prison. Unitt herself suffered three “mini-strokes” in her Framingham cell, where the temperature reached 101 degrees fahrenheit. Her cellmate, Connie Garcia contributed affidavits and medical records. Garcia spent time in solitary confinement after her close friend committed suicide in MCI-Framingham which sent Garcia into a grave depressive episode. Instead of receiving mental health care, Garcia was restrained by four officers, placed under observation for 24 hours, and then prescribed heavy doses of antidepressants and psychotropic medications for the next 13 years.

Unitt also alleges that her legal documents were taken by MCI-Framingham officials. The day that Unitt’s first motion was due in court, a third of her legal documents were missing from her personal storage locker at MCI-Framingham. Recovered email correspondence between the prison superintendent and officers at the prison reveal instructions to search Unitt’s cell for legal documents. When Unitt finished her sentence years later, she would be missing nearly two thirds of all the legal documents she had accumulated.

Despite reform from both the state DOC and internally within MCI-Framingham itself, abuse of power and excessive force run rampant. For example, in 2014 Massachusetts enacted an anti-shackling law that prohibited the handcuffing of women during labor and childbirth. However, a 2016 report by the Prison Birth Project revealed that the Massachsetts DOC consistently violated this law and there are no mechanisms built into the legislation to prevent this from happening. Further, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (R) signed into law two bills in 2018 that restricted the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women and women with mental illnesses. However, Framingham found a loophole in the new restrictions, creating new units for women with mental illness that effectively placed them in solitary by holding the women for up to 21 hours every day.

There is some hope, however. Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH), a nonprofit founded and led by formerly incarcerated women of color in the Boston area, has been leading the charge to finally end the incarceration of girls and women in Massachusetts. FJAH was started by Andrea James while she was incarcerated in Danbury, Connecticut. Upon her release, she based FJAH in Roxbury, Massachusetts, just 40 minutes from Framingham. James has built FJAH up to become a nationally active nonprofit organization, part of various coalition groups intent on dismantling the criminal justice system. Of Framingham, FJAH said:

“Former Superintendent [of MCI-Framingham] Hallet mentioned today that there’s 50 women who are lifers. What she didn’t talk about was how many of those women are disabled, how many of those women are chronically ill, how many of those women are elderly and how many of those women who have already done literally decades in prison, and that’s almost all of them. All of them are survivors of trauma and specifically sexual and domestic violence. For us, even that population who the general public might look at as having caused more serious harm, they’ve already paid for that with their lives, their bodies, and we want them to come home and live in dignity and experience healing before they die. Otherwise — we need to be very clear — they will die in a prison.”

To find out more information on how to assit FJAH in their fight to pass S.B 2030 and end incarceration in Massachusetts, visit

Information for this blog post was gathered from reporting posted by Shelby Grebbin and Isha Marathe at as well as reporting from Liberation News.


(By Caitlin Davan)

(Photo credit: DigBoston)