THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE is set to vote on language this Thursday that would impose a five-year moratorium on new prison construction.
The language is tucked into a large government bond bill, which would authorize state government to borrow $4.88 billion for a wide range of building projects touching on myriad facets of state government. But, the bill makes clear, that money cannot go to prison construction or expansion projects.
The moratorium is an initiative of a group of prison reform advocates who oppose the construction of a new women’s prison to replace the aging prison in Framingham.
The bond bill was reported out of the House Committee on Ways and Means with a unanimous vote, 31-0, with no members abstaining.
The bill is “an important vehicle to seek justice” and “I am proud that we are uplifting our values around incarcerated individuals every chance we get to do so,” said Rep. Chynah Tyler, a Boston Democrat who sponsored a stand-alone bill in the House to impose a moratorium on prison construction, in an email. “We hope to redirect the narrative on prison reform to focus on what we can do to ensure folks are rehabilitated upon release and not on a trajectory to go back to prison.”
The inclusion of the moratorium indicates that it has the support of House leaders. House Ways and Means chairman Aaron Michlewitz is supportive, his spokesperson confirmed. Tyler said the bill is an effort of Michlewitz, House Speaker Ron Mariano, and House leadership.
Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat, sponsored a similar bill in the Senate. The House bill has 37 cosponsors, and the Senate bill has 25, though several lawmakers signed onto both versions.
“I congratulate House members,” Comerford said of inclusion of the moratorium in the bond measure. “I’m hopeful that the Senate will see the momentum in the House, and we’ll be able to meet that momentum and bring this over the finish line.” Comerford said it is “synergistic” to insert the moratorium into the same bill that proposes spending money on capital projects.
The bond bill would not allow any public agency to “study, plan, design, acquire, lease, search for sites or construct new correctional facilities.” The state would also be barred from expanding current facilities, converting any part of a dormant or existing facility to be used for detention, renovating a correctional institution beyond what is needed for maintenance or building code requirements, and repairing a facility for the purpose of expanding it or increasing its bed capacity.
The House plans to vote on the bond bill on Thursday.
Although the moratorium would affect any new prison construction, the most immediate debate is over the future of MCI- Framingham. Prisoners, advocates, and state officials have agreed that the Framingham prison, which opened in 1877, needs major repairs to address substandard conditions, which is why the state has been exploring options to relocate those women and either renovate or build a new prison. State officials have not made a final decision.
Comerford said the effort to move women out of prisons was underway even before COVID-19 hit, as a way to advance the Legislature’s criminal justice reform work, but the pandemic made it more acutely needed as Massachusetts tries to “build back more equitably.” “That really calls for investment in truly significant terms on alternatives to incarceration, jail diversion program, after-incarceration support,” Comerford said. “That’s the kind of work we should and could be doing, not investing these enormous sums into expanding a footprint for incarceration.”
Mallory Hanora, executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, which has been leading the campaign to oppose construction of a new women’s prison, said a five-year moratorium would provide “an opportunity for us to pause as a state and reconsider our spending priorities and take this opportunity to invest in what we know actually creates safety and wellbeing.” Hanora argued that the state should invest in community-based solutions for female offenders, like housing, health care and treatment, rather than building a new prison.
Hanora agreed that the current conditions at MCI-Framingham are intolerable but said she worries that if the state launches into a building project, officials will continue focusing on incarceration rather than moving more women into community-based and treatment options.
“We know it’s impossible for women to heal and advance their lives inside of a prison, so we don’t want to launch a massive construction project where the first answer is going to continue to be incarceration,” Hanora said. “We should focus first on decarceration, releasing women from Framingham. If we spend five years doing prison construction, that’s not what’s going to happen.”
The state has not made public any other prison expansion plans. In fact, with the prison population now the lowest in 35 years, the Department of Correction recently announced plans to suspend housing operations at MCI-Cedar Junction. There are plans to improve existing facilities included in the state’s capital plan – for example, upgrading facilities at the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center to provide more programming spaces and patient privacy. It’s not clear from the bill’s language if that kind of renovation would be allowed under the moratorium or not.
Rep. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican who is on the House Ways and Means Committee, said there was not a lot of discussion of the moratorium by the committee, but it was pushed by progressive members seeking to reduce incarceration. He said he is not necessarily personally supportive of the moratorium, but he is not hugely worried about it either. “I don’t think we’re clamoring to get new prisons built,” Durant said. “If things change in the future, we can always revisit this issue. But at this point it’s not giving me a lot of heartburn.”