The Boston Globe has an interesting article in its Ideas section today (The section is something the paper adopted a couple of years ago, and tends to include long-form essays on social problems and intellectual trends. It’s worth a check on Sundays.) about the evolution of women’s prisons, focusing on Massachusetts Correctional Institute Framingham, where I volunteered for three and a half years in high school. The piece examines the idea that women were considered unreformable, especially in earlier eras when many of them found themselves in prison for vice crimes, now mostly established. Even in more enlightened eras, and with the appointment of a woman as the head of the corrections system in Massachusetts, there has continued to be criticism of efforts that focus on rehabilitation.
While the time I spent at MCI Framingham, every other Saturday for those three years, was certainly eye-opening, it gives me more hope than the author of this article. I was working with a program called Girl Scouting Behind Bars, a special troop composed of girls from all over the Greater Boston area whose mothers were incarcerated. Our goal was to both give them some support they weren’t getting from foster parents and social workers through typical scouting activities, and to get them in contact with their mothers. The women who participated had to go through extensive detox, job training, and parenting programs before they could start coming to the Saturday meetings with their daughters. I remember them fondly: these women, mostly in prison for prostitution or drug-related crimes, were tough, often intelligent if not highly educated, and determined to turn their lives around. The parternship the Girl Scouts built with the prison was a productive one, at least it seemed that way to me at the time, and was happening in other states as well. Only one mother got out of prison in those three years, but lots more joined the program, and a lot of them told me that it had made them better parents. Obviously, it’s a tragedy that they had to go to prison, and leave their children in the hands of an often brutal state system to come to that realization, but it means that even in these circumstances, we’d found a way to do something right.
Ultimately, I think it’s a false distinction to say that rehabilitation means being soft on crime. I am still upset and angry with the woman whose twelve-year-old daughter, under extreme pressure from older boys in her neighborhood to have sex with a number of them, and trying to protect her younger situation from a less-than-ideal foster system, tried to kill herself. But I’m also still proud of another girl who brought up her grades and got herself into Boston Latin, a pair of sisters whose mother was the first to be released who excelled in school and in activities. If kids can not only survive, but thrive in extraordinary circumstances, maybe we can do some good with their parents as well. It certainly seems like we owe it to the children who will be in their care to focus on rehabilitation rather than on vengeance.