The Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Framingham, the oldest women’s prison in Massachusetts and one of the oldest in the nation, is quickly decaying. According to a state report, its brick buildings have deteriorated, its health services are strained, and its housing options fail to adequately support the women inside. Even more concerning are the issues that remain hidden from view. In 1999, an editorial in the Boston Globe revealed that the Massachusetts Department of Corrections settled a lawsuit the year before regarding an incident in which 112 women at the prison “were roused from bed and strip-searched by screaming masked guards doing a training exercise.” More recently, in June of 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union determined that 85 women incarcerated at MCI-Framingham and 14 staff members had contracted Covid-19 while inside the prison, bringing the Covid-19 positivity rate for the women there behind bars to over 50 percent.
Today, many believe MCI-Framingham is a dangerous and non-restorative home for women convicted of crimes in Massachusetts. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Once known as the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women, the prison used to function as a program focused on rehabilitation for women convicted of crimes. Miriam Van Waters, who served as the superintendent of the prison for 25 years starting in 1932, created and implemented this program, paving the way for the restorative justice movement today.
The Schlesinger Library at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute contains two collections about Miriam Van Waters and the Framingham Reformatory among its archives on the leadership and history of women in the United States. These papers reveal how the Reformatory once operated and document the impact of Van Waters’s creative solutions to incarceration.
Florence J. Adriance, a student at the Reformatory during Van Waters’s leadership, wrote a letter in 1948 testifying to the effectiveness of Van Waters’s program. Before she entered prison, a psychiatrist had condemned Adriance as a “hopeless alcoholic.” But, she wrote, “Dr. Van Waters doesn’t know the meaning of the word hopeless and I have never heard it used in this institution.”
Though Adriance had been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous in the past, the Reformatory gave her the tools she needed to finally succeed in her healing. After directly communicating with Adriance, Van Waters enrolled her in a rehabilitation group for her addiction and gave her work experience that aligned with her skills. Adriance did clerical work that taught her “much about office technique,” a skill she would use outside of the prison when she reentered society and sought out a career.
“I was not ready for it,” Adriance wrote, describing why her past attempts at recovery had failed. “Dr. Van [Waters’s] program of rehabilitation helped me to be ready.”
Van Waters used to say, “My alcoholics are gifted women.” She personally studied the case histories of everyone incarcerated at Framingham and held meetings with her employees to see that each woman was guided toward rehabilitation with the support of the entire team at the Reformatory.
Van Waters’s program also helped inmates who struggled with other difficult life experiences. Many women at the Framingham prison faced the challenges of motherhood. Some entered prison while pregnant and went on to give birth at the Framingham Union Hospital, while others were separated from their families and forced to leave their children behind when they were incarcerated. To address these challenges, the Reformatory had a group called the “Mother’s Club” in which new mothers were educated on childcare practices. “[Van Waters’s] tenderness with babies and their mothers, her understanding of every phase of human behavior makes her an outstanding personality in her field,” Adriance wrote.
Van Waters’s approach made her a pioneer in the field of penology and garnered the attention of prominent political figures. In one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day” newspaper columns from 1949, the First Lady wrote that Van Waters’s methods were “humane, scientific and successful.” She continued, “My faith in Dr. Van Waters is quite unshaken.”
But the Reformatory faced its downfall when the state began worrying about Van Waters’s progressive treatment of crime that prioritized humanity over the strict hand of the law. On January 11, 1949, the Commissioner of Correction at the Reformatory, Elliott E. McDowell, dismissed Van Waters from her role as superintendent for treating the women at Framingham as “students at a boarding-school” rather than as criminals. Even though she was eventually reinstated, Van Waters later had to change many elements of her program to comply with the commissioner’s harsh directives.
Today, the case of Miriam Van Waters is of special importance because of the ongoing debate surrounding the building of a new women’s prison in Massachusetts.
The Framingham facility is in need of serious change — serious enough that the Department of Corrections believes that a renovation project alone could not fix its problems. It has proposed a $20 million to $40 million plan to build a new prison: the Correctional Center for Women.
The low number of women at Framingham and the non-violent nature of their crimes, however, has prompted local prison justice advocates to question whether building a new prison is really necessary. As of July 26, 2021, the prison is only at 30 percent capacity, making it the least occupied medium-security prison in Massachusetts. And, in 2019, only 4.1 percent of the women in prison in the U.S. were incarcerated for violent crimes, while the majority of women in prison — 59.2 percent — were incarcerated for drug-related crimes.
The activists are calling for the state to use its budget to create a rehabilitation center for women convicted of crimes instead. On Mother’s Day of this year, the organization Families for Justice as Healing rallied outside of MCI-Framingham to protest the state’s proposal for a new prison, arguing that women and girls cannot rebuild their lives behind bars.
The idea of transforming Massachusetts's main women’s prison into a reformative space may sound radical, but it has a strong historical precedent. Miriam Van Waters’s program serves as a model of an alternative approach to criminal justice — proof that healing, rather than punishment, can be an effective solution to crime.
The question is: will the state follow her lead?