Introducing the Women and Incarceration Project
When plans for a new Massachusetts women’s prison were announced in early 2021, a multidisciplinary group of Suffolk faculty sprang into action.
These experts – in the interconnected fields of sociology and criminal justice, political science, and law – shared empirical data and the strong evidence-based belief that building a new correctional facility would be a costly mistake. Instead they advocated for addressing the inequities that fuel the mass incarceration epidemic. They made their case on their website and through Op-Eds, research, and outreach to lawmakers, reporters, and advocacy groups.
The pandemic has only heightened the inequities that draw women into the cycle of incarceration, exacerbating issues such as housing insecurity and the opioid epidemic.
“Building another prison or diverting more women into court-mandated treatment programs does nothing to repair the underlying human rights issues at the root of the problem, including every person’s right to access housing, healthcare, and social supports,” says sociology professor Amy Agigian, director of Suffolk’s Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights.
Catalyzed by their work against the prison proposal, the group formed the Women and Incarceration Project (WIP) within Suffolk’s Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights. Now WIP’s team of Boston-based academics, attorneys, and social workers focuses on a variety of criminal justice issues impacting women and gender expansive people from a human rights perspective.
“Because women make up a small percentage of those incarcerated, their particular circumstances are under-researched and poorly understood. We work to address that gap by providing applied, multidisciplinary research on topics related to women and incarceration.”
Support for the Women at ‘Mass and Cass’
In a recent letter published by The Boston Globe, WIP members Susan Sered and Cherry Russell addressed the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the city’s Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard intersection and its specific impact on the lives of women who suffer from housing insecurity, substance use disorder, and other barriers to safety and stability.
The pair praised Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s plan to provide transitional housing nearby, potentially keeping women connected to their families and valuable social supports. WIP also released a memo, A Better Way Forward for the Women at Mass and Cass, outlining the human rights considerations Wu and her administration must keep in mind as they implement the plan, including providing women with privacy, dignity, autonomy, and safety from physical and sexual assault.
“Most importantly, transitional housing must be part of a clearly articulated and funded plan to help women move into permanent housing with appropriate supports that allow them to fully (re)build and reclaim their lives.”
WIP creates briefings and other resources to educate policymakers, journalists, and the public on issues impacting women in the criminal legal system. Research topics showcased on their website include incarcerated and marginalized women in Massachusetts, opposition to the women’s prison, trauma and incarceration, and alternatives to incarceration. They welcome partnerships with other scholars and advocates working for a society that values women, meets human needs, and rejects over-reliance on punitive criminal legal approaches. Anyone interested in learning more or working with the WIP can contact Susan Sered, professor and chair of the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department at Suffolk.
“Boston is the ideal place for this work,” says Sered. “The depth and breadth of research and expertise on these topics here means we can provide policymakers and community groups with the tools they need to help women and communities directly and immediately. Pilot programs we implement in Massachusetts can be a guiding light for the rest of the country to develop more just, equitable, and effective solutions.”