Can Massachusetts Prisoners Work on the Wall? House Democrats Say …

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BOSTON — In the end, Republicans’ calls to further examine a bill that would bar county sheriffs from allowing prisoners to participate in building President Donald Trump’s proposed Mexican border wall were no match for Beacon Hill Democrats’ resistance.

Massachusetts House Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-North Reading) first tried a procedural argument. He tried to persuade his colleagues that previous statements made by Democratic leadership and by bill sponsor Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford) concerning the financial impact of sending prisoners to work on such projects, meant that the legislation deserved a review from the Ways and Means Committee.

That bid failed in a 36-117 vote.

Next came an attempt by Jones to establish a commission tasked with analyzing the bill’s “costs and effects,” with a study deadline of October 1.

Jones’s amendment fell by a 38-117 margin.

However, one amendment did succeed, despite vociferous challenges from Republican members. State Representative Claire Cronin (D-Easton) offered an amendment that further elaborated upon just which prisons/jails and corrections administrators would be barred from assigning prisoners to participate in work details over state lines.

State Representative James Lyons (R-North Andover) questioned why his Democratic colleagues, who have previously assigned more urgent bills to undergo studies, were so quick to act on this particular piece of legislation.

“The fact is this is a bill brought forward for one simple reason: politics,” Lyons said. “There are all kinds of other issues we should be talking about, but this is the one before us today.”

He later chastised Democratic leadership for making a series of legislative pay raises the first order of business in the new lawmaking session that began in January.

Wednesday’s vote was inspired by a proposal floated in January by Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson to assign prisoners under his stewardship to help built Trump’s proposed wall. The bill, as it is written, makes no mention of Hodgson and instead offers a blanket policy that prohibits all “inmates or prisoners of any facility” to “labor outside the boundaries of the commonwealth.”

Several Republicans expressed reservations with the all-encompassing policy associated with the legislation. Cabral claimed that the legislation would not prevent the governor, in a time of national disaster, from potentially assigning prisoners to specific out-of-state work details. 

“I’m reading the bill and it’s very short and I’m not seeing this in here,” Jones said about Cabral’s claim. It says, ‘No inmate or prisoner of any facility governed by this title shall labor outside the boundaries of this commonwealth.’ There’s no exception. I’m wondering if I’m misreading that or he’s misstating the fact.”

Falmouth Republican state Representative David Vieira later pointed to state laws already on the books that allow prisoners to work within the commonwealth. Vieira argued that the law already stipulates where prisoners can serve on details, but several Democrats claimed that the implication of the already established law is not forceful enough. 

Said state Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield):

“Today we have a very simple vote, it does not need a study. Do you or do you not believe tax dollars should be spent to build this foolish wall?”

In the end, lawmakers voted 120-35 to support the bill.The legislation now heads to the Senate.