A NEW BEGINNING FOR FORMERLY INCARCERATED WOMEN
“Stepping into this house made me feel better … She has a way of transforming pain into passion.”
When Stacey Borden exited MCI-Framingham for the final time in 2010, she was done with more than three decades of jail stints and drug use due to untreated trauma. She was determined to start a residential reentry program for women and beat the odds for the formerly incarcerated.
According to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, in 2018, the unemployment rate for those who return home from prison was more than 27% compared to 3.9% for the general population. Approximately 40 to 60% of people with addiction issues will relapse. And within five years of release, 76.9% of those with drug crime convictions return to prison.
Borden had developed the idea of the New Beginnings residential reentry program while walking the prison yard with one friend behind bars—Angie—who told her she’d better get herself clean and educated if she wanted to fulfill her dream. In an interview for this story, Borden repeated what Angie said that had motivated her: Change, or else you’ll do something stupid and end up in prison for life.
Prison Policy Initiative research makes clear that women returning home have “a significantly higher need for services than men,” and that “reentry supports should be responsive to the particular needs of justice-involved women.” These women face more economic marginalization and poverty than men; they need specific trauma-informed and gendered health and mental health care as well as help to reunify with children. Additionally, they often lack stable housing.
Borden’s experience taught her to fight the odds. But it took 12 years after prison for her dream to fully become a reality.
After earning her BA and Master’s Degree at Cambridge College, Borden began to provide services as a clinician. She reached out to 60 formerly incarcerated women in Boston communities to provide counseling and other services. What she didn’t have was an actual place where incarcerated women could live after prison or an in-depth program created for their reentry.
In 2019, she found herself in an unlikely class when she enrolled in Boston College Law School’s Project Entrepreneur, taught by professor Lawrence Gennari. Recommended by friend and mentor Andrea James, the founder of the Roxbury-based Families for Justice as Healing and executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, the course was designed to help formerly incarcerated men and women create their own “entrepreneurial opportunities.” She and other former prisoners were paired up with traditional college students who were learning corporate law. The exchange—a chance to learn business law for the formerly incarcerated and a primer on prison for the traditional students—enlivened the class, Borden said, and in her case, helped her prepare a business plan and budget and imagine a future for her organization.
After she made her PowerPoint pitch for a house to business leaders invited to attend the final presentations by students in her course at BC, no one asked her any questions. She wasn’t encouraged.
“But I got home and there was an email from a couple that wanted to finance the house,” she recalled. Borden couldn’t believe it. She found the $750,000 property soon after. The donors have remained anonymous, but they consulted with Borden weekly until she opened New Beginnings. The acquisition was followed by two years of obtaining permits and bringing the building up to code. “I had to figure out the American Disabilities Act as I worried about wheelchair accessibility permissions, handicap bathrooms, and sprinkler systems,” Borden said.
The Roxbury facility opened in 2022 and can hold 10 women. It currently houses three including Angie, the woman who helped Stacey behind bars. Other tenants can come from federal facilities or after completing a state sentence. They can transition to the house, and get resources, a driver’s permit, a bus pass, and the correct-size bra, as well as therapy, life skills, and a sense of community before they return home.
“We can only have two at a time on parole,” said Borden, who stated she created a reentry program that has “dignity,” and one she would want to go to. “We don’t do urines,” she added, but instead offer a “full service evidence-based cognitive-behavioral treatment program.”
The three women, who all asked to be referred to by their first names, spoke with me about New Beginnings when I visited the house last year.
Angie, who served 31 years at Framingham, decided to transition to a program like Borden’s because she said she wasn’t sure how it would go with family. “I might be too overwhelmed … not having any structure, not having any resources at home.”
Nichole said, “My very first day out of Framingham, I met Stacey at a program while they were taking my chains and everything off. She became my counselor, and then my friend.” Nicole had served three-and-a-half years and when she got out, worked in a treatment program—at first. “Then I had a bad relapse,” she said. At the time, she was suicidal. “Stacey came to see me in the hospital and said, You’re going to come to the house.” Nichole moved in.
Nyorca had a less traditional path. On probation, she endured a lot of domestic violence. Nyorca had the difficult task of explaining to her children that she was going to live elsewhere, temporarily. “Stepping into this house made me feel better,” she said, adding, “I felt suicidal when I found Stacey, but within five minutes she had me laughing. She has a way of transforming pain into passion.”
Borden has been honored for her work with many accolades, among them a Jane Doe Inc. award for advocacy in domestic violence and sexual abuse of women. In 2022, she won the Peg Erlanger Award from the Criminal Justice Policy Initiative for her advocacy of women’s rights.
While they’re “always struggling for funds,” Borden said her program already has many partners, and its website features praise from the likes of Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, state Sen. Liz Miranda, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, among many others. On the grant front, New Beginnings recently received $100,000 over four years from the Cummings Foundation.
Beyond finances, the women struggle too. In unison, they told me that being in a program is not easy. They have therapy much of the day. Otherwise, one is in a culinary arts program, another goes to Brandeis, and another takes a slew of classes. There’s also a financial literacy course, theatre and art, and chores they share. They have an 8pm curfew in the summer and a 6pm curfew in the winter. They spoke highly of the staff that helps them through the day, many of whom are also formerly-incarcerated. Each person who comes to the house, they said, brings his or her own special skill.
“It’s not perfection,” Angie said, “it’s progress.”