We Need a Prison Moratorium

by Cole Harrison

Testimony submitted to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, October 5, 2021

Thank you, co-chairs Eldridge and Cabral, for convening this hearing.  I am Cole Harrison, executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action.  Peace Action was formed in 1957 as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.  Today Massachusetts Peace Action has 1,800 dues paying members and 18,000 supporters in the Commonwealth.  We advocate for a peaceful U.S. foreign policy, an end to our overseas military interventions, nuclear disarmament, a reduced Pentagon budget and a peace economy, and addressing racism, colonization, and the climate emergency.

Today, we are supporting two bills, H.1905 and S.2030, which would impose a five year moratorium on construction of new prisons in the Commonwealth.

The United States suffers from extreme inequality compounded by racism.   Homelessless, drug abuse, and crime are largely manifestations of these basic social problems.  Instead of housing the homeless, providing mental health treatment, and helping drug abusers to recover, our nation’s approach to these issues is militarized overpolicing and mass incarceration.

The United States has the largest prison population in the world, 2.1 million, and also the largest number of incarcerated people in the world relative to its population.  We need decarceration, not more prisons.  People who have offended need positive solutions and true rehabilitation — not prison. The entire paradigm is wrong and must be changed.

As a peace organization, Massachusetts Peace Action sees that our punitive and militarized policing have their counterpart in our militarized foreign policy which sends our military to numerous foreign countries, tries to solve problems with force, starts unnecessary wars that accomplish nothing, and threatens the destruction of the entire world with omnicidal nuclear weapons.

The Pentagon consumes over $1 trillion a year which robs funds that are needed to create constructive pathways to address inequality, racism, homelessness, mental health and other ills.  Likewise, the Commonwealth’s large expenditure on corrections, amounting to $70,000 a year per prisoner, is a misuse of taxpayer money and reflects distorted priorities.

The Boston Globe editors wrote last weekend that our state prison population is graying and that elderly women who pose no possible danger to public safety, including one who is in a wheelchair, are being imprisoned without a meaningful chance at parole.   It could not be plainer that this reflects a judicial and correctional system which are very far away from carrying out their purported tasks of ensuring public safety and rather are locked in an effort to relentlessly punish offenders rather than rehabilitating them.  The legislature needs to intervene, call a halt, and establish a five year moratorium on new prison construction, during which constructive solutions can be developed that will assist both offenders, families, and communities.