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Massachusetts Senate Passes Ban on Building Prisons, Jails

The state Senate passed legislation on June 16 that would implement a five-year moratorium on construction of new prisons and jails across the state. The state has the lowest incarceration rate in the nation.

(TNS) — The Massachusetts state Senate passed legislation Thursday, June 16, afternoon that would impose a five-year moratorium on the construction of new prisons and jails in Massachusetts, a move supporters say would reduce fiscal burdens on the state and promote alternative rehabilitation methods for incarcerated individuals.

The provision was included in a $4.97 billion government infrastructure bill that cleared the Senate unanimously after lawmakers dealt with over 170 amendments. The House passed similar language in mid-May, and now the bill needs final procedural votes in both branches before heading to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.

Sen. Jo Comerford said the moratorium helps stop the flow of women and girls — disproportionately people of color — into jails and prisons, family separation and brings people with nonviolent charges home.

Massachusetts has the lowest rate of incarcerated people in the nation and one of the lowest populations of incarcerated women, Comerford said, yet 600 women are still imprisoned in the state at places like MCI-Framingham.

“We need a five-year pause on new jail and prison construction and prison expansion to ensure that the pathways away from incarceration for women and for men, pathways that this Senate helped create, are being justly used” and used often, the Northampton Democrat said from the floor of the Senate chamber.

The prison construction moratorium would prevent state agencies from planning, designing, acquiring, leasing, searching for sites or constructing new correctional facilities, according to the bill text. It also bars expansion, conversions or renovations to an existing facility that would increase the capacity of the state’s Department of Correction.

Work on inactive correctional facilities could only occur if the repairs or renovations are part of transferring incarcerated people due to the closure of an existing facility or to temporarily accommodate prisoners because of “emergent repairs” at another facility, according to the bill text.

An unsuccessful amendment from Sen. John Keenan would have allowed state agencies to plan, design, search for new correctional facilities, and proceed with construction within the next five years so long as the end result was not a net increase in beds compared to what the state had in July 2022.

Keenan said he agrees the state should have fewer correctional facilities and incarcerated people, and should have more diversion and behavioral health programs. But the state does have old facilities, he said, and at some point officials are “going to have to address that.”

“Over the next five years, we should be planning and designing and contemplating that and then look to construction — responsible construction — that’s consistent with all of our goals, which is to limit incarceration,” the Quincy Democrat said.

Comerford said the amendment’s language would send the state in the “wrong direction,” arguing lawmakers should instead focus planning efforts on alternatives to incarceration.

“[The amendment] strikes me as a tactic that will take our eyes off the real goal for us that I know you share, which is to depopulate these buildings so significantly, do everything we can to bring people home to communities, to offer them opportunity, to offer them treatment and healing, and to stop these — I used the word pernicious earlier, it’s the right word — the pernicious cycle of mass incarceration,” Comerford said.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said he heard nothing during Thursday’s debate that suggested Keenan’s amendment was “mutually exclusive” with the goals of the prison construction moratorium.

“We have an obligation to those that are incarcerated, to be able to be good stewards of their welfare and that should not require us to continue to house them in antiquated facilities if there are better alternatives,” Tarr said, adding there should be a conversation about reducing the rate of people who are incarcerated.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge disagreed with Keenan, saying when he goes to prisons like MCI-Framingham he does not hear calls for new facilities amidst complaints about conditions or lack of services.

Eldridge said there is a growing sense that new facilities have not “led to any dramatic improvement of services or support” for incarcerated individuals. He said people are instead interested in providing more behavioral supports.

“I would much rather see us go down that model for certain groups of people who’ve committed offenses than to build more prisons,” he said.

The Baker administration has been looking at Norfolk as the potential site of a new women’s prison, which would be blocked if the moratorium became law.

The moratorium is based on legislation filed by Rep. Chynah Tyler that wound up in the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee before the language was worked into the House’s version of the general government infrastructure bill.

Eldridge said the moratorium is not a partisan issue and pointed to a decision Gov. Charlie Baker made in April to close MCI-Cedar Junction over the next two years.

“I think that speaks to the fact that we are closing prisons and we do not want to go back to building new prisons,” Eldridge said.

The general government bond bill senators passed Thursday also includes $750 million for campus infrastructures investment for public higher education institutions, $675 million for court facilities improvements, $100 million for information technology upgrades across state government and $20 million for a municipal grant program to support virtual and hybrid meetings.

“These authorizations will allow our commonwealth to continue striving forward together and create even a better tomorrow,” the Senate’s chief budget writer, Sen. Michael Rodrigues, said before lawmakers debated the bill.

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