DEMOCRATIC GUBERNATORIAL candidate Ben Downing said the Baker administration should abandon any plans to build a new prison for women inmates in Norfolk, saying “investing in incarceration is the exact opposite of what Massachusetts needs.”

Downing took the side of advocates who have said the state should take the estimated $50 million needed to build such a facility and spend it on programs and services to keep women out of prison.

The issue has become a lightning rod in corrections. The Baker administration for some time has been exploring ways to replace the crumbling Framingham State Prison, built in 1887, where many female inmates are housed. In February, the Baker administration selected three firms to come up with designs for a new facility for women at the Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk – all the while insisting that no decision has been made about actually constructing such a facility.

Downing, a former state senator, solar executive, and the only announced candidate for governor, issued a statement siding with advocates who see no need for a new prison, even if the existing prison for women is slowly falling down. Parts of the facility have been closed and some of the inmates have been transferred to other facilities.

“If there is a genuine desire by state leaders to focus on more ‘trauma-informed’ care for those interacting with our justice system, then our dollars should be directed towards decarceration, community-based alternatives, housing, mental health care, education, job training, and the endless other ways we can support — rather than punish — those carrying trauma,” he said. “Our state government should also engage transparently and in good faith with the advocates for whom this is deeply personal; the women and children and families living with the generational consequences of incarceration every day.”

In a telephone interview, Downing said his opposition to a replacement for the Framingham prison should not be interpreted as opposition to prisons in general. “Folks are going to commit serious crimes and serious crimes should have repercussions,” he said.

But Downing said the Baker administration should be transparent about what it wants to do with Framingham State Prison and engage in discussions with advocates and the public about possible alternatives to incarceration. “I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.