my latest on Truthout: Will Massachusetts Build a New Jail or Explore Alternatives to Bail?

Norma Wassel recalled a woman who was arrested for stealing a winter coat. Not only did she not have a winter coat, she also lacked $50 to post bail. Without that $50, she would have remained behind bars until her case was heard.

Stories such as this are fairly frequent in Massachusetts and across the country. Women often are incarcerated pretrial not because they are a risk to themselves or their communities but because they cannot afford to post bail. Those arrested in several counties are sent to the Awaiting Trial Unit (ATU) at MCI-Framingham, the state's women's prison. According to the Massachusetts Department of Corrections' weekly count sheet, the ATU was at 472 percent capacity, with 302 people, as of February 3, 2014. Its original design capacity was for 64 people.

A study by the Massachusetts Women's Justice Network found that:

  • The ATU consistently operates at 330 percent capacity.
  • 56 percent of women in the ATU had bail of less than $1,000.
  • The average length of stay is 77 days.
  • 60 percent of women detained pretrial eventually had their cases dismissed or continued without a finding.
  • Although women make up 7 percent of state prisoners, they make up 33 percent of the Department of Corrections' pretrial detainees.
In January 2013, Rep. Kay Khan introduced H1434, a bill to build what she calls a "women's pretrial facility" in Middlesex County, which begins just west of Boston. In an interview with Truthout, Khan insisted, "This is not about building jails. It's about getting people detoxed, getting them treatment and getting people awaiting trial to the services that they need." She noted that many women are arrested for substance-abuse-related issues and that the prison does not provide substance abuse treatment for those awaiting trial.

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