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Baker vetoes prison moratorium

Cites need for renovations in existing prisons

Anna Lamb

After months of sustained activism by prison abolitionists to block the construction of new detention facilities in Massachusetts, a veto by Governor Charlie Baker has struck a blow to the advocates’ campaign.

Last week, Baker received from the Legislature a more-than-$5 billion government operations bill that contained language barring new prison projects for the next five years. Baker vetoed the moratorium, while passing the rest of the bond bill that funds building and other government improvement projects across the commonwealth.

In his signing letter, Baker argues that the moratorium language, which also restricts any renovation to current prison facilities, is too restrictive and would inhibit improvement projects aimed at benefiting inmates.

Specifically, Baker points to the state’s ongoing projects, including adding mental health and addiction resources at several prisons — one of which is the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, where inmates from MCI-Cedar Junction will move after a planned closure of the facility.

In his signing letter, obtained by Commonwealth Magazine, Baker writes that the moratorium would “restrict the [Department of Corrections’] ability to maximize operational efficiencies, address environmental hazards in aged facilities, and meet the evolving demands of the inmate population.”

At the end of July, anti-prison activists and lawmakers came together on the State House steps demanding that Baker sign the moratorium, arguing that without it, plans for new prisons will move forward despite plummeting inmate populations. In 2021, the population at MCI Framingham — one of the oldest facilities still in operation in the U.S. and a badly crumbling structure — fell to 160 from a high of nearly 800.

“Increasing the carceral footprint doesn’t make sense,” state Sen. Joanne Comerford said at the rally last month. “We know that prisons and jails don’t make crime go down. We know that addressing root causes works.”

Activists say a new facility invites more prosecution to fill its beds.

In the wake of the veto, groups like Families for Justice as Healing that have organized the rallies and continued to push for moratorium legislation are slamming the governor’s decision.

FJAH Executive Director Mallory Hanora, in a statement to New England Public Media, called the move a “slap in the face of constituents across the commonwealth that have been demanding something different.”

“We want to focus on reimagining our communities without prisons,” she said.

The group is not giving up without a fight — they’ve been circulating a script for residents to use in order to call their elected officials and demand an override of Baker’s veto.

“We are demanding a special session in September to 1) override Baker’s veto of the Prison Moratorium and 2) pass No Cost Calls with no amendments,” a note on the script reads. At the end of the regular legislative session, lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would provide free phone calls to Massachusetts inmates.

Baker has been making his way through a monster list of bills sent to him after a marathon legislative session last month. So far, he has approved bills to reform the governing of soldiers’ homes, to crack down on poaching, to protect research animals, and to stop the dissemination of crime scene photos.

He also has made decisive moves not to pass some legislation, including a bill to reform Massachusetts health care systems which he has refused to sign as of Monday. The bill would create universal health care standards across the state and send funding to local health boards.

Baker also has vetoed a bill that would allow teachers and delegated school staff to administer insulin to diabetic students.

Informal sessions will continue to be held by lawmakers into January, where they will continue to attempt to pass legislation. Simultaneously, Baker will continue working his way through the bills currently in front of him.