Lawmakers in agreement on prison construction moratorium

Baker says proposal would hamstring correctional system


THE LEGISLATURE and Gov. Charlie Baker appear headed for another showdown, this time over the next half-decade of facilities management decisions for the state’s prisons and jails.

Following the Senate’s passage Thursday of a $5.07 billion general government bond bill, both branches have now approved versions of the legislation that also impose a five-year moratorium on any correctional facility construction or expansion in Massachusetts.

Legislators said that mandatory pause would build on the state’s 2018 criminal justice reform law at a moment when the statewide incarcerated population is at the lowest level in decades, and give policymakers more time to weigh additional ways to steer more people away from prisons and jails and toward services and treatment.

“This Senate knows that mental health and addiction treatment in alternative settings has proven to be much more effective, rehabilitation in alternative settings, not to mention less expensive,” Sen. Jo Comerford, who filed a standalone prison construction moratorium bill, told her colleagues Thursday. “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 often used.”

But Baker administration officials contend that an outright halt on both construction of new facilities and expansion or renovation of existing facilities could hamstring their ability to make necessary upgrades.

In a June 3 letter to Senate leaders, Public Safety and Security Secretary Terrence Reidy and Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici said the moratorium language “would restrict the Department’s ability to maximize operational efficiencies, address environmental hazards in aged facilities, and meet the evolving demands of the inmate population.”

“The Department has a number of other critical initiatives pending, such as facility improvements that are required to provide mandated medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs in several Department facilities, upgrades necessary for the relocation of the clinical stabilization unit (CSU) at MCI-Norfolk to a more conducive and therapeutic environment, improvements to the nursing care unit (NCU) at MCI-Shirley, and perhaps most important, a strategic facility plan to reimagine a rehabilitation center for women based on the best gender-responsive practices at MCI-Framingham,” Reidy and Mici wrote. “These improvements require facility modifications that will require not only funding, but the allowance of discretion in how existing facilities are used — or not used.”

Any state or public agency would be prohibited from planning, designing, acquiring, leasing, or constructing new correctional facilities or searching for sites to place them under the Senate’s bill.

Agencies would also be barred from expanding, converting, or renovating existing facilities “in a manner that will result in an increase in the net aggregate capacity,” and they could only do that kind of work at dormant facilities to transfer incarcerated people there from a closing facility or to provide temporary housing while doing emergency repairs.

The push to impose a moratorium ramped up amid steps by the Baker administration to explore construction of a potential new women’s prison in Norfolk to replace MCI-Framingham, which is the oldest women’s prison of its kind in the country.

Comerford said last summer that the project could have cost up to $50 million.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that spending tens of millions of dollars on a new facility rather than ramping up investments in diversions, treatment, and services is “the wrong way to go.”

It’s not clear where the administration stands today on the prospect of a Norfolk prison, and no final decisions have been announced. Administration officials pushed back on suggestions that they have their sights set on any new construction, particularly after DOC announced in April it would close MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole.

“EOPSS and the department have no intention of constructing new correctional facilities now or in the foreseeable future; nor do we believe that it will be necessary to increase overall operational capacity given that the department has experienced a continued decline in prison population statewide,” Reidy and Mici wrote to Senate leaders. “In fact, the Department’s current population is the lowest it has been in approximately 35 years.”

Senators shot down a push to rework the moratorium language during Thursday’s debate. Quincy Democrat Sen. John Keenan and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr filed an amendment that would have allowed state agencies to search for sites, plan and design new correctional facilities ,and permit construction so long as it does not increase the statewide inmate capacity.

They argued during debate that planning for new facilities and efforts to reform the correctional system are not “mutually exclusive.”

“We have an obligation to those that are incarcerated to be able to be good stewards of their welfare, and that does not require us to continue to house them in antiquated facilities if there are better facilities,” Tarr said.

Comerford contended the amendment would be “the wrong direction for us to contemplate as a Senate.”

“There’s just a danger for us if we retrench into this need to believe that our job in the commonwealth is to build a better facility rather than to empty those facilities,” she said. “I want us to empty them.”

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Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
Senators rejected the Keenan amendment on a voice vote and later approved the underlying bond bill also using a voice vote.

The House unanimously approved its version of the bill (H 4790) in May, and legislative leaders must now decide if they can iron out the differences in informal discussions or if they will appoint a conference committee to negotiate.