The Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security heard testimony on Senate Bill 1279, An Act Protecting Inmate Safety and Expenditure of State Funds, on July 19 at the Massachusetts State House.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael Barrett (D-Lexington), would establish guidelines for shipping inmates out of state to perform labor. The bill was spurred by Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson’s proposal that inmates in Massachusetts be sent to the United States/Mexico border to build the border wall proposed by President Donald Trump.
“Such an action would fly in the face of common practice and would run contrary to the correctional system’s crucial role of helping prisoners prepare to successfully reenter society,” said Elizabeth Matos, who spoke in support of the bill of behalf of Prisoners’ Legal Services. “For example, the sheriffs would still be responsible for ensuring the safety, security, and well-being of those in their custody. Such a responsibility becomes exponentially more complicated when transporting and housing prisoners in another state,” she added.
Another bill in the pipeline would eliminate out-of-state inmate labor entirely. Although Barrett said he sees value in sending prisoners out of state to work, he wants to ensure their rights are protected.
“If I were an inmate I’d welcome the chance to vary my daily routine for a good cause,” Barrett said. “I think we should surround the bill with safeguards, as my bill proposes … The key is balance; the key is safeguards. No one official should be making the decision himself.”
The safeguards the bill would put in place include a provision that would require the sheriff to submit a detailed description 90 days in advance of the “purpose, mode and manner, physical and material conditions and constraints attendant to, and the duration of, both the transport and the transport destination.”
“That’s a problem,” Hodgson said. “If it’s a natural disaster, you need to move quickly. The whole purpose of this project is to get communities back on their feet,” he added, conceding that, “in non-emergency situations, 90 days is reasonable.”
The description of the prisoners’ travel and living conditions would have to be submitted to the secretary of administration of finance, the secretary of the executive office of public safety and security, the chairs of the joint committee on public safety and homeland security, the chairs of the joint committee on the judiciary, the chair of the senate ways and means committee and the chair of the house ways and means committee.
Hodgson has been vocal about his desire to send inmates to the United States/Mexico border to help construct the border wall proposed by Trump. Barrett said that Hodgson is vying for a place in the spotlight and is supporting what he considers to be a bad idea.
“This sheriff seems to be all about publicity and forming an alliance with President Trump,” said Barrett. “I’m opposed to the wall altogether. It’s crummy public policy and insulting to our neighbor.”
Hodgson said that the wall isn’t the only project he has in mind, noting that if the program had been in place when Flint Michigan’s water crisis began, inmates could have helped. When pressed for examples of other projects, he simply reiterated that they could be of use in an emergency, as long as the 90-day waiting period isn’t signed into law.
“For the cost of the prisons, the cost of their clothing [and the cost of] food, the taxpayers are paying an awful lot. This is a chance for them to give back and earn time off their sentence,” Hodgson said.
However, it’s not yet clear who would shoulder the financial burden of transporting prisoners out of state to work.
“On the basis that they’re saying we’re spending state money … that’s not true,” said Hodgson. “We would expect that FEMA would underwrite the costs of transportation [and accommodation].”
Hodgson also said that if FEMA fails to fund the projects, he’ll reach out to local sheriffs’ offices. “That would be up to the local communities. The Massachusetts taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear the burdens of us helping other communities in need,” he added.
Neither of the possible sources cited by Hodgson have committed to funding any of the proposed projects, and no other funding mechanism is currently in place.