MASSACHUSETTS HAS THE  lowest incarceration rate in the country and its inmate population continues to decline steadily, yet the state is still investing heavily in prisons and jails. A bill sponsored by Senator Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat, is asking legislators to question that. 

The bill being pushed by Comerford, formerly incarcerated people, and prison justice advocates would implement a five-year moratorium on investments in incarceration. That includes studying, designing, expanding, or building new jails and prisons within the state. The bill comes in response to a move by the state to invest $50 million to construct a new women’s prison to replace the deteriorating MCI-Framingham. The proposal outraged prison justice advocates. 

“If you build this prison, I guarantee you, women will be beaten. Women will be starved. Women will be raped. How does that make our community safer?” asked Caroline Bays, board president of Progressive Massachusetts, an organization that pushes for racial, social and environmental justice, at a legislative hearing on the bill Tuesday. 

 A representative of the Massachusetts Department of Correction said that no final decisions have been made regarding the future of MCI-Framingham or women’s correctional facilities in the state. 

From 2011 to 2018, the average daily prison population in Massachusetts declined by 21 percent. At the same time, the state ramped up spending by 25 percent, increasing the budget by $254 million to nearly $1.4 billion. Few of those extra dollars went to programs to reduce recidivism, according to a study by MassINC, the parent company of CommonWealth

Testifying in support of the bill, Bays recalled visiting an incarcerated friend at Cedar Junction, a prison in Norfolk, and laughing—then sometimes crying—over the irony of a sign in the waiting room declaring the facility a place of rehabilitation. She said she knew the reality of what went on within those walls: beatings and assaults such as the one that permanently crippled her friend. 

Bays pointed out that Massachusetts has one of the highest prison budgets in the country, despite housing one of the smallest populations of people behind bars. The Department of Correction spends about $70,000 per inmate annually. For about two thirds of that cost, a student could spend a year at Harvard University. “Instead of a prison, why don’t you build a university?” suggested Bays. “At the end [of the sentence, an inmate] would have a degree and a future instead of a black hole on their resume and more trauma to recover from.” 

Cynthia Goldberg, founder and director of the F8 Foundation—an organization that helps former inmates reintegrate into society—spoke about the trauma she experienced in prison. She said she still suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disorder which incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people experience at significantly higher rates than the general population. “This is not helping people that need help …. we don’t need more prisons,” she said.

Ramona Pollack spoke on behalf of Boston Worker Circle, a Jewish culture and social justice organization, furthering Goldberg’s concerns about mental and physical health among inmates. She pointed to prolific rates of prison rape and poor access to mental health treatment as well as the disproportionate impact of incarceration on under-resourced communities and people of color. “We can put the money that would be used to inflict new trauma, harm, and family separation on these communities in the form of new prisons back into these communities where it belongs and move toward a Massachusetts where everyone has equal access to the support and services we all need,” Pollack said. 

 Tara Miller from Showing up for Racial Justice Boston, a branch of a national network organizing White people to support racial justice, suggested that the choice to build and invest in prisons is an infrastructure decision that diverts funds from more pressing projects.  “What we choose to build today reflects our values and creates the conditions for the next generation,” she said. “We could build affordable housing and roads and broadband access and adaptations to rising sea levels and heat waves in Massachusetts, but do we want to build more prisons?” 

“Even the most conservative think tank studies cannot find a way to prove prisons to be an effective policy,” said Elizabeth Whalley, a professor of sociology and criminology at Framingham State University. “Fifty years of research since mass incarceration has found that incarceration increases crime, increases harm, and extracts from communities.” 

She said access to jobs, a strong economy, investment in social programs, healthcare, and economic support are statistically proven measures for reducing crime and recidivism.

In more than an hour of testimony, no one spoke out against the bill. Testimony also did not address the thorny question of what should happen with the prisoners in MCI-Framingham if a new prison is not constructed to replace the aging facility.