BOSTON (State House News Service) – A Massachusetts sheriff’s controversial offer of inmate labor to help with President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico has encountered pushback in the state Legislature.
Responding to the offer Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson announced earlier this month, Sen. Michael Barrett filed a bill that would require sheriffs sending anyone in their custody out of Massachusetts to first receive approval from state officials. A separate bill, filed by Rep. Antonio Cabral, would outright prohibit Massachusetts inmates or prisoners from laboring out-of-state.
Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, said Hodgson’s proposal was “intended to be outrageous” and described his bill as an effort to “calm the waters.”
“I think that one likely development we’ve got to keep an eye on is the appearance of mini-Trumps all around the country,” Barrett told the News Service. “I think the Trump era is not just about the new president, it’s about a style of policymaking by provocation and outrage. You’re going to see mini-Trumps arise in Massachusetts. Politicians are amply rewarded for stirring the pot, and I think our approach here should be fundamentally different, more level-headed, more even-handed.”
But Hodgson said sheriffs are accountable to the county voters who put them in office — rather than lawmakers or executive branch officials — and that Barrett’s plan could interfere with agreements already in place among sheriffs nationwide that govern the transport of inmates across state lines.
“We’ve done more with less ever since I’ve been in office, so we don’t really need the oversight of a senator or someone else to tell us that we can’t help other communities and other states when they’re in times of need,” Hodgson said. “I really think he should take a look at the authorities that are afforded within the constitutional office of sheriff.”
During his Jan. 4 inauguration ceremony for his fourth term in office, Hodgson announced he had “made an official offer” to Trump to have inmates from his jail work on the border wall. He said Wednesday he has not spoken to Trump about the proposal since the New York Republican was sworn in as president Jan. 20, but that Trump and the administration “know of it.”
Trump on Wednesday signed an order establishing it as executive branch policy to “secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border, monitored and supported by adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.” The executive order directs Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly to take all appropriate steps to plan, design and construct the wall, as well as to identify federal funding sources.
Cabral’s bill (HD 3417) amends the section of state laws dealing with correctional institutions and says in its entirety, “No inmate or prisoner of any facility governed by this title shall labor outside the boundaries of this Commonwealth.”
“As you know, there have been some who have proposed to take inmates from Massachusetts and take them across the country to the southern border of the United States to build structures, to build walls,” Cabral said. “I think that’s not the best use of resources of Massachusetts, and certainly it’s not the best experience for inmates that are presently under our custody in Massachusetts.”
Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat, said he believes the main goals of inmate work programs should be to provide rehabilitation and to benefit a local community and taxpayers.
Cabral and Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton are cosponsors of Barrett’s bill (SD 1904), according to Barrett’s office.
Under Barrett’s bill, a sheriff would need to provide “a detailed description of the purpose, mode and manner, physical and material conditions and constraints attendant to, and duration of, both the transport and the transport and the transport destination” at least 90 days before transporting any prisoners.
Administration and Finance Secretary Kristen Lepore and Secretary of Public Safety and Security Daniel Bennett would need to sign off before any transport could occur. The Cabinet secretaries would also need to give their OK for the inmates sent out-of-state to then participate in work or community service projects.
“The bill would basically preserve order because attempts to move these prisoners would not go unopposed,” Barrett said, predicting a “series of increasingly dramatic confrontations between pro- and anti-Trump people.”
Hodgson said Bristol County inmates have traveled out-of-state for work projects in the past, including after Sept. 11, 2001, when he said he took close to 50 people to Ground Zero in New York. In such a situation, Hodgson said, he would not “consider that I would have to stop and ask the secretariats whether I could respond to that.”
“Sometimes in America, there are bigger issues that require more help, and that’s what’s made America great,” he said.
The offer of help with the border wall is part of a bigger plan Hodgson calls “Project N.I.C.E.,” for National Inmates’ Community Endeavors. The sheriff said he’s been working on the program for three years and envisions “sort of a Peace Corps model for the inmates,” who could assist in responses to natural disasters.
Copyright 2017 State House News Service