A month after the state announced plans to decommission a maximum security prison in Walpole, House lawmakers on Thursday are expected to vote on a plan that would impose a five-year moratorium on new construction for jails and prisons.
The proposal, written into a $4.8 billion government operations bond bill, could upend Governor Charlie Baker’s potential plans to build a new women’s prison. A proposal for one has been under consideration since 2019, but administration officials said this week they had not decided whether to pursue the project.
Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group. The Department of Correction, which runs the state’s prison system, said last month its inmate population was at a 35-year low. That number doesn’t include county jails, which are run by elected sheriffs.
State Representative Chynah Tyler, a Roxbury Democrat who has filed separate legislation to impose a moratorium on prison construction, said the proposed five-year pause is a start.
“Building prisons is not something that our community supports because it insinuates that we are supporting the continued incarceration of our people,” she said by email. “We shouldn’t be building any new prisons. Rather, we should redirect our efforts to focus on how we can keep individuals in our community from being incarcerated.”
The House budget committee tucked the proposal into the bond bill because it had the support of criminal justice reform advocates and “a number” of representatives, said Blake Webber, chief of staff to state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the chamber’s budget chairman.
House lawmakers also left open the possibility of extending the moratorium, which at five years would run concurrently with the state’s typical capital improvement plan.
“We figured it could [be] re-reassessed after that,” Webber said of the five-year ban, which would include state prisons and county jails. The proposal would allow construction at correctional facilities for maintenance or to comply with building codes.
The plan faces opposition from some House lawmakers. State Representative Timothy Whelan, a Brewster Republican, filed an amendment that would strip the moratorium language from the bond bill.
He said the state should have the option to pursue construction plans that would provide incarcerated people and correction workers with safer quarters and better accommodations for education and rehabilitation services. Whelan said he also supports constructing a prison for women, noting that portions of the current facility, MCI-Framingham, were built during the 19th century.
“The women that are incarcerated deserve much better facilities than what exists at MCI-Framingham,” said Whelan, a former correction officer who is running for sheriff in Barnstable County. Four other lawmakers are co-sponsoring Whelan’s amendment.
Jason Dobson, a DOC spokesman, did not address the moratorium proposal, saying the agency doesn’t comment on pending legislation. The Baker administration has not made any “final decisions . . . regarding MCI-Framingham or women’s corrections,” Dobson said.
A Baker spokesman didn’t address a question about the governor’s position on the moratorium proposal, and referred the Globe to the DOC for comment.
Baker’s capital spending plan, released earlier this month, includes $1.5 million for a study that would develop “a reimagined correctional center for women” by considering renovations to three DOC sites in Framingham and Norfolk. As of May 1, there were 202 women in DOC custody, according to state statistics.
Sashi James, director of reimaging communities for Families for Justice as Healing, said she believes House lawmakers will approve the moratorium. Her organization seeks to abolish incarceration for girls and women and has played a prominent role in opposing the construction of a new prison for women in Massachusetts. The Baker administration had previously put out at least three bids for one, including last year when officials estimated the price tag could fall between $20 million and $40 million.
“People are really standing with us,” James said.
A five-year moratorium would give the organization time to expand its efforts to help women in need and broaden its movement, she said.
“We’re healing decades of trauma and oppression,” James said.
Susan Sered, a senior research analyst with the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University, said the moratorium would give state officials time to study the best approach for those ordered into the prison system.
“A five-year moratorium will give policy makers time to do their homework and better understand, certainly in the case of the women’s prison, who are these women? Why are they there? And do they constitute a danger to society?” she said. “The Department of Correction has done very little research into what are actually good practices if the goal is for people to reenter society and function.”
If passed by the House, the bond bill would have to clear the Senate.
State Senator Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat who has filed legislation to pause prison construction, said she plans to support the measure.
“This is the right direction for the Commonwealth,” Comerford said in a statement.