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House Democrats passed a bill blocking the use of local prisoners on out-of-state projects. Photo: File

Massachusetts lawmakers are trying to foil a local sheriff’s plan to put inmates to work on Trump’s border wall between the United States and Mexico.

 

On Wednesday, House Democrats voted to prevent the use of inmate labor outside state borders — a move the Republican minority deemed unnecessary because they say state laws already prohibit it.

 

Though Massachusetts jails have never sent prisoners to work on projects out of state, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson stirred debate over his controversial proposal to send inmates in his jail to Texas to help build President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.

 

Hodgson has said inmate labor would cut down the cost of the border wall, which has been estimated at as much as $25 billion, as well as teach prisoners skills and build character.

 

The wall is just one of any number of projects he envisions under the umbrella of his pet project, Project NICE — National Inmates' Community Endeavors — in which he and other sheriffs across the U.S. would mobilize inmates to provide relief efforts at natural disaster sites or work on major infrastructure projects.

But Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, said sending prisoners out of state would cost taxpayers money, deprive inmates of rehabilitative programming and open the state up to liability.

"It makes it very clear what can and cannot be done," Cabral, the bill's sponsor, told State House News Service. "This is really about state money being spent on state programs, and that's really the message."

In a statement to State House News Service, Hodgson said the vote showed “once again that personal political agendas are more important than keeping our citizens and legal residents safe."

The bill still has to pass the Senate, which is also controlled by the Democrats, but some legislators argue both bills are unnecessary because state law already prohibits prisoners from being ferried out of state for work.

During a three-hour debate of the bill in House chambers Wednesday, Rep. David Vieira, R-Falmouth, read aloud a section of state law that allows work release programs "within the commonwealth" and another allowing inmates to provide services for "municipalities within the county," saying those provisions would make it illegal for a sheriff to send inmates beyond state borders.

"This is much ado about nothing," he said. "Our laws already protect it."