Taking the fight against jail and prison expansion on the offensive
How a 5-year moratorium on prison and jail construction in Massachusetts could flip the script in the fight against jail and prison expansion.
by Naila Awan, August 30, 2021
While the most visible fights against jail and prison expansion are often defensive—taking place in city council chambers or appearing on ballots—an old idea has gained new traction and is changing what these fights could look like going forward.
Massachusetts-based advocates are not only opposing a $50 million proposal to build a new women’s prison in the state, but they are seeking to place a 5-year moratorium on building new—or expanding existing—jails and prisons in Massachusetts. A bill that would establish this 5-year moratorium, S. 2030, has been introduced in the Massachusetts legislature.1
Alongside local groups, the Prison Policy Initiative submitted written testimony in support of S. 2030, urging the legislature to implement reforms that would reduce the number of people incarcerated in the state.
Why a 5-year moratorium?
A 5-year moratorium provides opportunity to advance reforms to reduce unnecessary incarceration before even contemplating an increase in the capacity of the state or counties to lock more people up. This window is critical because fights against jail and prison expansion can be a year in, year out effort, and the opportunity costs of these perennial fights are enormous.
Recent examples have shown that government entities can often be relentless in their efforts to expand jails or prisons. Counties routinely bring rejected proposals for jail expansion to the ballot year after year, disregarding the lack of community support. For example, Otsego County, Michigan has revived a proposal to expand its jail that will appear on November’s ballot, despite the fact that a jail expansion proposal was rejected by voters just six months earlier.2 Greene County, Ohio has done the same.3
The proposed moratorium in Massachusetts would allow the time and resources devoted to fighting jail and prison expansion proposals each year to be instead devoted to discussing and advancing reforms that would change the state’s criminal legal system and reduce incarceration. It also would provide the state an opportunity to realize the full impact of recent criminal justice reforms that have been adopted to reduce incarceration.
More states should consider moratoriums on prison and jail expansion, like the one being considered in Massachusetts, because they give lawmakers, advocates, and residents the opportunity to engage in a critical analysis of what could more effectively address public health and safety than mass incarceration and its many related harms.
Fighting jail expansion where you live? See our Tools for Fighting Jail Expansion.
Legislation establishing moratoriums on jail or prison construction have also recently been pursued in other places. For example, H.B. 40 in the New Mexico legislature, the Private Detention Facility Moratorium Act, prohibits “enter[ing] into, renew[ing] or modify[ing]” any agreement that would “increase the capacity of a detention facility” that is “owned, managed, or operated, in whole or in part, by a private entity.” In addition, language that has been proposed for the BREATHE Act includes a provision that would require the Bureau of Prisons to “immediately enact a moratorium on all new federal prison, . . . immigrant, and youth criminal-legal detention center construction.” ↩
The Prison Policy Initiative also submitted testimony against Greene County’s jail expansion proposal. ↩