A STATE SELECTION BOARD on Wednesday moved forward proposals to construct a new prison for women despite pushback from former prisoners and advocates who said the estimated $50 million for the project would be better spent toward efforts to rehabilitate women with previous traumas.

The Designer Selection Board chose three design firms to submit plans for building a new prison at the Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk that would replace ramshackle MCI-Framingham, the oldest women’s prison in the country.

At the online meeting of the board, the advocacy group Families for Justice as Healing called for the decarceration of prisoners and investments into housing and economic development outside of prison walls. Separately, other groups called for redirecting funds to supportive services, like reentry programming focused on trauma.

Jennifer Gaffney, who represented Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici at the meeting, said Mici believes a new type of prison is needed. “It’s been a long-time goal of hers to have a facility that is more conducive for the females that we have in our custody, to really look at trauma-informed care,” she said.

Despite the planning for a new prison and past comments by top state officials, the Department of Correction continues to insist no final decision has been made at this time on whether MCI-Framingham will close.

Built in 1877, the Framingham prison has had to close several sections of the facility in recent years due to aging infrastructure that isn’t up to state standards, according to a June 2019 report filed by a Department of Public Health inspector. The prison currently houses 162 women, according to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

The current search for a design firm is the third time the state has attempted to move forward with the project. Two earlier attempts faltered on procedural grounds – one in February 2020 after the contracting process wasn’t advertised properly in local papers by the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance , which acts as a realtor for the Department of Correction, and the other time in August when a workaround process using so-called “House doctors” stirred controversy as an attempt to build a facility out of the public eye.

Each time, advocacy groups have tried to block the construction of a new prison, saying it’s not needed. “We can get to the root causes of incarceration instead of building a new women’s prison,” said Leslie Credle, who was released from MCI-Framingham two years ago. “There is no such thing as a trauma informed care prison. The DOC and administration have taken the punitive approach to incarceration.”

The alternative, said former inmate Stacey Borden, is to infuse cash into reentry programs that can help women dealing with past traumas such as rape, domestic violence, and poverty that often lead many to commit crimes. “The ultimate goal was to give them a home, a residential reentry facility to give them the support services, provide them the support services that they need and deserve,” she said.

Borden was incarcerated until 2010 for white collar crimes, and has since received a master’s degree in trauma and addictions counseling. She heads her own nonprofit, the New Beginnings Reentry Services, which works with women who are formerly incarcerated or dealing with upcoming parole.

The Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance meets to consider a designer for a new women’s prison.

She said her own sexual assault drove her to crimes as a teenager and young woman, at a time when trauma counseling and talk of such issues did not exist.

Ken Wexler, a construction manager and member of the board, read through dozens of chat messages that he said were “pouring in” from prison advocates.

“Wasn’t this why DCAMM withdrew this awhile ago?” he asked in reference to the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which indeed publicly withdrew multiple requests for proposals because of advocates.  “Or should I just ignore the chats and focus on choosing the architect? I’m concerned about what happens when you open this up for public comment?”

Elise Woodward, the board’s chair, said the group “is not an advocacy board” and has the “responsibility to identify architectural and engineering firms that have experience to assist the DOC if and when they decide to design the facility.”

The three firms selected on Wednesday — Kleinfelder Northeast, Feingold Alexander, and HDR Architecture – did not return requests for comment on how they will address the concerns of advocates.

Mallory Hanora, executive director for Families for Justice and Healing, said before the meeting that she hoped the firms would withdraw from the process after hearing “directly from the community that designing a new women’s prison will cause generations of irreparable harm.”

The design firm proposals all recognized the need to build a facility sensitive to the needs of the inmates. The Kleinfelder proposal, for example, said the firm’s “gender-responsive programming provides mental health treatment programs; opportunities to reconnect with children and family; and recognizes history and trauma of physical and sexual abuse; as well as increased substance abuse issues.”

The firm pointed to its previous work at Western Massachusetts Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee as an example of that effort, saying it had designed “dayroom spaces” with natural light, and “soft colors” were used wherever possible.

The board is currently scheduled to interview the finalists on March 3. There is no set timeline for what happens after that, but the state has previously said it would want to move the women of MCI-Framingham by spring of 2024. DCAMM representative Emmanuel Andrade cast doubt on that date at the design board meeting, saying, “this time around, that’s not what we’re trying to achieve with this project.”

This article has been adjusted for clarity.