Lawmakers pass moratorium on prison expansion

Compromise allows repairs but no growth in beds


IT’S ALMOST TIME for Gov. Charlie Baker to decide exactly what he thinks about a legislative mandate preventing his administration from studying or constructing new correctional facilities.

Lawmakers on Thursday advanced a compromise bill that authorizes nearly $5.2 billion in bonds to repair, modernize and upgrade state buildings and, in an addition that drew skepticism from Baker deputies, imposes a five-year moratorium on expanding the prison and jail footprint in Massachusetts.

The final general government bond legislation produced by a conference committee would prohibit any state or public agency from studying, planning, designing, acquiring, leasing, constructing or searching for sites for new correctional facilities. Agencies would also be barred from expanding, converting, renovating or activating any already-built facility, even if it is not in use today, unless that move would accommodate a transfer of incarcerated people from another facility that is closing.

The House and Senate each accepted the conference committee report on unrecorded voice votes Thursday, and the bill needs only procedural votes now to reach Baker’s desk. But by sending the bill to Baker with so little time left for formal sessions, lawmakers are effectively enhancing Baker’s ability to shape the final bill.

Rep. Danielle Gregoire, the lead House conferee who crafted the accord with senators, said the final provision will “allow for any updates and rehabilitation to existing facilities while not allowing the Department of Correction to add to the number of prisoners and inmates they are allowed to house.”

“We have come up with compromise language on a proposed prison moratorium which furthers the goals of both the House and the Senate to ensure that, while all of those incarcerated individuals in Massachusetts live in habitable conditions and have potable water and are free from pests and other issues that some of our prisons have currently, the Department of Correction under this language will not be allowed to construct or in any way add bed number to their underlying, current capacity,” Gregoire told her colleagues.

Baker has not himself outlined a public position on the moratorium, but his deputies — who explored the idea of building a new women’s prison in Norfolk — have already aired their concerns to lawmakers.

Public Safety and Security Secretary Terrence Reidy and Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici told top Senate Democrats in a June 3 letter, before that chamber took up the bill, that the temporary ban “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 duo said the Baker administration has “no intention of constructing new correctional facilities now or in the foreseeable future,” noting that DOC’s inmate population is at the lowest level in 35 years, but cautioned that they need “discretion in how existing facilities are used — or not used.”

The general government bond bill calls for billions of dollars in borrowing to fund significant capital improvements across the public sector, including at health and human services facilities, public higher education campuses, public safety and security facilities, and the judiciary system.

Lawmakers also loaded up the 51-page bill with page after page of earmarks for local projects such as $500,000 for a new fire station in Northborough, $750,000 to replace and renovate the Winch tennis and basketball courts in Framingham, and $1 million to renovate the South Boston division of the Boston Municipal Court.

“This was a smooth, collaborative process on two bills that were not very far apart,” Senate conferee Will Brownsberger said Thursday morning.

Meet the Author

Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
Conferees raised the bottom line to $5.187 billion from the roughly $5 billion versions that cleared both branches, and Gregoire said the final version includes more than $200 million in local earmarks.

“We have had a very good, positive working experience here,” she said. “We’ve been able to iron out all the differences. We’ve been able to represent the interests of all the members of both the House and the Senate.”