Bill seeks to uncover the buried histories of state-run Institutions

For immediate release

Family members, students, researchers, and legislators testify today in support of new legislation to establish a special commission on the history of state institutions for people with developmental and mental health issues.

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, a handful of institutions founded in the mid-1800s expanded into a network of state hospitals, state schools, and farm colonies.  While providing good care and services to some, institutions such as the Fernald School in Waltham also served as sites for medical experiments involving residents, experiments that today are recognized as gross violations of human rights.

By the 1970s, thousands of people with developmental or mental health challenges were housed in at least 27 large- and medium-sized institutions in the Commonwealth.  The ’70s saw the burgeoning of awareness about civil rights and a spate of lawsuits over the treatment of residents, clients, and patients.  What followed were a series of landmark rulings by federal district court judge Joseph Tauro that prompted significant improvements in the care provided, managed, and overseen by what is now the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services and the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health.  Yet comprehensive and consistent records and histories of these institutions are still unavailable.

“We live in a time of historic reckonings,” said State Senator Mike Barrett, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.  “With respect to Massachusetts citizens with developmental and mental health challenges, and as regards our better understanding of human rights and humane treatment, the past can be a guide — but only if we truly know it.  This commission will add impetus to the acknowledgement and restoration of these hidden Massachusetts lives, to the same degree and in the same ways that we’re able to know about the lives of everyone else.”

The commission idea was inspired by a local initiative.  In 2019, Barrett met with students and teachers at Waltham’s Gann Academy who had launched a project to research and write the capsule biographies of 298 people who had resided in state institutions in Waltham and Lexington and who, upon their deaths, were buried in graves that bore no names and were marked only by number.

“As a person with mental illness who was briefly committed twenty years ago, I am keenly aware that in another time, I would have spent my life in a state asylum instead of having the great privilege to teach at the Harvard Kennedy School,” said Alex Green, the teacher who led the effort at Gann Academy and an advocate of the bill.  “Not a week passes without a former resident, employee, or family member reaching out to me in the desperate hope that they can find answers to the unsettled issues that remain in their lives.  Now is the time for a state-supported commission, led by disabled people, to do just that, and I think that it will provide immeasurable benefit to helping understand this history.”

While nearly all the state’s large institutions have closed, there has not been a concerted and systematic effort to excavate their histories.  Documents are scattered across state agencies.  Former residents have rarely been asked to tell their stories.  Family members face a maze of bureaucracy as they try to learn what happened to loved ones.

“The people that are going to sit on this commission are vitally important because they’re someone who lived there, a family member.  We need these kinds of people to be the eyes and ears for all the people who lived in these institutions.  We really haven’t had that before,” said Pat Vitkus, the wife of the late Donald Vitkus, who was a Vietnam combat veteran, born in Waltham, and incarcerated at Belchertown State School in the 1950s.

“Families have a right to find their loved ones’ records,” she said.  “I know that Donald and his son searched for years before they could get all theirs, and those kinds of things should be readily available to someone who’s looking for them.”

The commission would seek to —

  • Locate or better organize records and documents involving former state institutions and the individuals who lived in them;
  • Make the records and documents available to former residents, their family members, and the general public, an effort that would be balanced by the protection of privacy;
  • Identify the burial locations of residents who died in the care of the Commonwealth;
  • Assess the likelihood of, and possible location of, unmarked graves at the site of former institutions;
  • Collect statements and recollections from former residents; and
  • Provide a “human rights framework” for understanding and assessing the state’s role in running the institutions.

Along with Barrett, who filed the bill in the Senate, State Representative Sean Garballey has filed the bill in the House of Representatives.  More than dozen leading disability and historical advocacy groups have made the legislation a priority for this session.

“As a mother of two sons with autism and an advocate for the disability community, my work throughout the covid-19 crisis has amplified the already difficult uphill battle for equity.  The Disability Commission bill will enable the Commonwealth to study the true history of the era of institutions.  We need to learn from that history and honor those who were forgotten,” said Maura Sullivan, Executive Director of the Arc of Massachusetts.

“Progress toward equity and inclusion depends on our deeper understanding of those who lived through this period.  The Arc of Massachusetts supports families who want to know about their loved ones who lived in segregation or were buried without names on their graves.  We support the idea that people with disabilities should lead this effort.  Being home to 27 institutions once in existence, this commission offers an opportunity for Massachusetts to provide a first of its kind, innovative model for memorialization, for the nation to follow.”

The hearing will be taking place virtually at 1 p.m. here:


Barrett scores major win in fight against climate change

For Immediate Release

A landmark climate bill has been signed into law, placing Massachusetts among the world leaders in the fight against global warming.  The new law, representing the contributions of many legislators but assembled, edited, and defended principally by local senator Mike Barrett, overhauls the state’s climate statute, advances the clean energy industry, protects low- and middle-income families, and provides tools to get to net-zero emissions by 2050.

“This bill is about getting down to brass tacks.  It’s about getting the job done, one step at a time, starting now,” said Barrett, the Senate’s leader on climate and energy.  “The pace of climate change is picking up — so the pace of climate policy must pick up. The Next Generation Climate Roadmap law reflects the concerns of people of every age, from every part of the state. The grassroots climate movement of Massachusetts is a force to be reckoned with.”

The bill’s route to ultimate success was not always assured.  Despite bi-partisan support in the Senate and House, the bill was vetoed at the end of the last legislative session by Governor Charlie Baker, who cited concerns of special business interests.

In response, Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano moved swiftly to pass the bill again.  And when the governor offered an amendment to strip the bill of major provisions, the Legislature stood firm, accepting a number of technical changes but rejecting any effort to slow the rate of climate progress.

The final legislation:

  • Sets a statewide net-zero limit on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, mandates emissions limits every five years, and sets sub-limits for transportation, buildings, and other sectors of the economy. “Tightening the limits and sublimits — keeping the timelines close — is a first-in-the-nation step,” says Barrett.
  • Establishes a municipal opt-in specialized stretch energy code which includes a definition of “net-zero building” and net-zero building performance standards.
  • Requires an additional 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind, increasing the total authorization to 5,600 megawatts in the Commonwealth.
  • Directs the Department of Public Utilities (DPU), the regulator of the state’s electric and natural gas utilities, to balance priorities going forward: system safety, system security, reliability, affordability, equity, and, significantly, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Codifies environmental justice provisions into Massachusetts law, defining environmental justice populations and providing new tools and protections for affected neighborhoods.
  • Sets appliance energy efficiency standards for a variety of common appliances including plumbing, faucets, computers, and commercial appliances.
  • Requires utilities to include an explicit value for greenhouse gas reductions when they calculate the cost-effectiveness of an offering of MassSave.
  • Increases the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) by 3 per cent each year from 2025–2029, resulting in 40 per cent renewable energy by 2030.
  • Factors the “carbon sequestration” capacity of Massachusetts’ natural and working lands directly into our emissions reduction plans.
  • Adopts several measures aimed at improving gas pipeline safety, including increased fines for safety violations, provisions related to training and certifying utility contractors, and setting interim targets for companies to reduce leak rates.
  • Prioritizes equitable access to the state’s solar programs by low-income communities.
  • Sets benchmarks for the adoption of clean energy technologies including electric vehicles, charging stations, solar technology, energy storage, heat pumps and anaerobic digestors.
  • Establishes $12 million in annual funding for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to create a pathway to the clean energy industry for environmental justice populations, minority-owned and women-owned businesses, and fossil fuel workers.
  • Provides solar incentives for businesses by exempting them from the net metering cap to allow them to install solar systems on their premises to help them offset their electricity use and save money.
  • Creates a first-time greenhouse gas emissions standard for municipal lighting plants that requires them to purchase 50 percent non-emitting electricity by 2030, 75 percent by 2040 and “net zero” by 2050.

“The new law is a game-changer for Massachusetts that other states are sure to follow,” said Barrett.  “It steps up the pace of our collective effort to slow climate change.”

Early deadlines under the new law:

  • Beginning around July 1, 2021, the Department of Public Utilities, regulator of natural gas and electric power companies, must give equal weight to emissions reductions alongside the agency’s more traditional emphasis on reliability and prices.
  • Also by July 1, Baker will have three new vacancies to fill — green building experts, all — on a reconstituted Board of Building Regulation and Standards, a high-impact-low-profile entity with enormous sway over energy use in new construction.
  • By July 15, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Theoharides must set a first-ever greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal for programs sponsored by MassSave, the popular home energy efficiency program.
  • By New Year’s Day, 2022, the DPU must have transferred $12 million in new funds to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, for a workforce training program focused on clean energy.
  • By July 1, 2022, the EEA Secretary must have adopted emissions limits and sub-limits for the fast-approaching year 2025.
  • By Christmas, 2022, the Department of Energy Resources must have developed and promulgated a new “specialized stretch energy code” that will be effective for any given town or city only upon adoption by the municipality itself.


Barrett adds $100M for major upgrades to Alewife Station Garage

For Immediate Release

Each year, the Alewife MBTA Station in Cambridge serves as an access point for hundreds of thousands of commuters as they travel around Greater Boston.  Unfortunately, after years of wear and tear, Alewife’s car garage is in need of critical repairs and upgrades.  But good news may be on the way.

During recent debate on transportation bonding and policy, local State Senator Mike Barrett offered a successful amendment to authorize the administration to spend $100 Million on major renovation and repairs to the structure.  The money would be used specifically for repairs, re-construction, and climate change adaption.

Alewife Station opened to the public in 1985.  But, Barrett points out, the garage originally provided for 2,733 parking spots. Nowadays at any given moment 250 may be unusable due to falling concrete and roof leakage.

“I hear from constituents on a regular basis about the poor condition of the garage,” Barrett says.  “It’s insecure and, to be honest, a little creepy at night.  At times the garage has had the highest reported crime rate of any station on the entire MBTA.”

A 2011 report revealed extensive decay in the concrete beams and columns holding up the Alewife Garage.  It concluded: “Field observations of the garage revealed a considerable amount of water leakage…The leakage is a major cause of the structural deterioration of the concrete topping on the precast concrete beams.”

A more recent 2017 report found the worst deterioration is on the second and third levels, where the state of the steel reinforced concrete beams is between “critical” and possible “imminent failure” due to the “level of delamination, spalling and cracking” and areas of “exposed, corroded rebar.”

Barrett says that a portion of the money will be used for multi-modal access to Alewife station, an important change in the fight against global warming.  The transportation sector is responsible for roughly 40% of carbon emissions in Massachusetts, Barrett says.  In addition to allowing more riders to access public transportation, he wants the garage upgrades to allow for green transportation like bicycles.

Currently, the garage is equipped to house about 500 bikes.  Even so, the bike cages are crowded and inconvenient; slots for bikes are often high off the ground and inaccessible for many riders.

“Tip of the hat to Cambridge State Rep. Dave Rogers, who offered a similar amendment in the House, and to Tami Gouveia, who’s the sparkplug in the Legislature for improving the Parking Garage,” Barrett says.  “And to Somerville State Senator Pat Jehlen, who signed on to cosponsor my amendment.”

The Senate transportation bond bill must be reconciled with the House version before going to the governor’s desk.

Should the provision survive the Legislative process and become law, it’s still not a done deal, Barrett says.  Because this is a bond authorization, the governor must decide to direct money to the specified improvements and the treasurer must sell bonds to pay for them.


Mass. Senate Passes Police Reform Bill

For Immediate Release

In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, the Mass. Senate has voted in favor of sweeping police reform legislation.  In an effort to advance social and racial justice, the bill creates new forms of oversight, promotes community policing, and strengthens standards of the use of force, among other measures.

One major component in the bill — sponsored by local State Senator Mike Barrett — provides new transparency and oversight to the purchase of military weapons by local, county, and state law enforcement.

After Ferguson, Barrett says, Americans learned that local law enforcement agencies routinely take advantage of massive federal sales and donations of equipment and gear that would otherwise be too expensive for municipal budgets.  Deployment of this material occurs disproportionately in communities of color.

“For Massachusetts, the issue is not academic,” Barrett said.  “Many cities, towns, and regional organizations are heavy users of these federal programs.”

Barrett’s measure is designed to increase state and local accountability for the acquisition of “military-grade controlled property,” like assault rifles and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles.

Among other provisions, the bill requires local police to get approval from its town meeting or city council before acquiring military-grade property, ensuring that all such purchases are subject to a public hearing.  Additionally, it requires approval by the state’s Secretary of Public Safety and Security for transfers of military-grade property from a federal agency to the state police or sheriffs.  And, after adoption of an amendment filed by Sen. Barrett, such approvals would also first be subject to a public hearing.


Other provisions of the bill include:


  • Strengthen the use of force standards: The bill bans chokeholds and other deadly uses of force except in cases of imminent harm.  It requires the use of de-escalation tactics when feasible; creates a duty to intervene for officers who witness abuse of force; limits qualified immunity defense for officers whose conduct violates the law; and expands and strengthens police training in de-escalation, racism, and intervention tactics.
  • Clarifies and rebalances the understanding of a qualified immunity defense: Under the legislation, the concept of qualified immunity will remain, as long as a public official, including law enforcement, is acting in accordance with the law.  However, this bill will not impact or limit existing indemnification protections for public officials.
  • Creates a Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee (POSAC): The committee will be an independent state entity composed of law enforcement professionals, community members, and racial justice advocates. The committee is tasked with standardizing certification, training, and decertification of police officers.  The POSAC will maintain a disclosure database of all misconduct complaints, and investigate complaints involving serious misconduct.  It will also prohibit nondisclosure agreements in police misconduct settlements and establish a commission to recommend a correctional officer certification, training, and decertification framework.
  • Imposes a moratorium on the use of facial surveillance technology: Government entities will not be able to use this technology while a commission studies its use and creates a task force to study the use of body and dashboard cameras by law enforcement agencies.
  • Addresses “school-to-prison pipeline:” The presence of a school resource officer will be at the discretion of the superintendent. The provision also prevents school districts from sharing students’ personal information with police except for investigation of a crime or to stop imminent harm.  The bill also expands access to record expungement for young people by allowing individuals with more than one charge on their juvenile record to qualify for expungement.
  • Establishes the Strong Communities and Justice Reinvestment Workforce Development Fund to shift funding from policing and corrections towards community investment. Controlled by community members and community development professionals, the fund will make competitive grants to drive economic opportunities in communities most impacted by excessive policing and mass incarceration.
  • Begin dismantling systemic racism: The legislation bans racial profiling, and requires racial data collection for all police stops. It also introduces a police training requirement on the history of slavery, lynching and racism, and creates a permanent African American Commission.  A primary purpose of the commission will be to advise the legislature and executive agencies on policies and practices that will ensure equity for, and address the impact of, discrimination against Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
  • Establish the Latinx Commission: Based on the existing Asian-American Commission and the African American Commission created in the current bill, to bring more underrepresented voices to the table and advance equity in policymaking.  Another prohibits decertified law enforcement officers from becoming corrections officers, while a further amendment eliminates statutory language offensive to the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Creates a Commission on Structural Racism: The commission is tasked with mapping out the systems impacting the Department of Corrections (DOC) mission using a structural racism lens.  This commission will propose programming and policy shifts and identifying legislative or agency barriers to promoting the optimal operation of the DOC.  It also creates a roadmap for the legislature to establish a permanent publicly-funded entity to continue this work.

The Senate’s Reform, Shift + Build Act now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for consideration.


The Fossil Fuel Lobby Is Targeting the State Senate’s Climate Bill. We Wish to Respond.

For Immediate Release

On Thursday, June 25, an organization named the Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy criticized Massachusetts State Senate climate legislation now pending before the House of Representatives.  In response, State Senators Mike Barrett and Jason Lewis issued the following statement.

In January of this year, the Massachusetts State Senate passed An Act Setting Next-Generation Climate Policy, now pending before the House of Representatives.  The Senate’s approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is radical not in its ideology but in its seriousness; we’re determined to get emissions down across the Massachusetts economy, transportation and buildings included.

We should add that the senators who wrote the legislation sat down with a good many commercial interests, listened to what they had to say, and made changes.  At the time of the bill’s final passage — with the votes of both Democrats and Republicans, and with only two dissents in the 40-member Senate — its seriousness of purpose seemed to impress the business community without unsettling it.

But that was then.  With the onset of COVID-19, conservative elements are eager to exploit an opening.  Two years ago, an investigative report in the Huffington Post blasted the then-new Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy as a “front for gas interests,” identifying, as major funders of the group, Eversource, National Grid, and Enbridge, the pipeline conglomerate behind the natural gas compressor station project in Weymouth.

Last week the Coalition surfaced anew, patching together a limp critique of Next-Gen that seems less about the bill and more about the Coalition’s longer-range objective, which is to keep fossil fuels at the heart of Massachusetts energy policy.  In a letter dated June 25th, addressed to leaders of the House, the fossil fuel interests and real estate developers led off with long-winded assurances of their objectivity.  Then they got down to brass tacks, telling readers that “sources of energy like natural gas have important and positive roles” to play, since “renewable sources cannot fill the void.”

Interesting.  Especially since the Senate bill hardly mentions natural gas per se, focusing instead on a widely-accepted bottom line — the need for truly dramatic reductions in Massachusetts emissions.  If this means relegating natural gas and its various hybrids to a much-reduced backup role, so be it.  As for any voids that may be left by today’s renewable resources, we certainly intend to see them filled — by tomorrow’s renewable resources.  Clean-energy solutions like heat pumps are already better than fossil fuel lobbyists care to admit, and the Senate wants them to be better still — one good reason we expand the mission of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

The Senate’s basic insight is this: Its considerable contributions to first-generation policy notwithstanding, the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act has generated significant emissions reductions in the electric power sector only.  Today, transportation, buildings, and industrial processes account for 79% of Massachusetts greenhouse gases.  After 12 long years, it’s clear that a law written in 2008 cannot drive reductions in these sectors, nor keep us on the emissions track we need to travel.

To get climate policy moving again, the Senate bill sets “net zero” emissions as Massachusetts’ overall greenhouse gas limit for the year 2050.  This is already policy in California and New York; in fact, it’s already policy in the Baker Administration.  The Senate takes the logical next step, baking net zero into law so that future governors will keep a steady course.

A 2050 objective set, the Senate then addresses the demanding and multi-faceted challenge of actually reaching it.  For one thing, we appreciate that this far-off goal, however imperative, will not motivate near-term change, so we direct the Executive to set interim limits at five-year intervals starting in 2025.  We insist on sector sublimits, too, so that transportation, buildings et al are asked to hit custom-fit benchmarks, and progress can be readily checked.

And, yes, among many other provisions, the Senate proposes a Climate Policy Commission, not to make policy (the prerogative of the Legislature) nor to carry it out (the province of the Executive), but to serve as a guardian of the future for younger generations.  Job One for the Commission is to tell us if we’re on track in bringing down emissions.  Job Two is to give us objective advice on what to do next.  (Omitted altogether from its mission is any power to make rules or regulations — for instance, to change the state building code, a crucial reform we assign to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources.)

We want the Commission to consist not of special interests (in its June 25th letter, the fossil fuel lobby demands a seat!) but of engineers, data analysts, and scientists.  We want it insulated from political pressure and made up of the most authoritative and credible Massachusetts voices we can find.

And, of course, the Commission should listen.  Which is why the Senate gives it an advisory council broadly representative of the public and specifically including the voices of low-income and moderate-income communities, displaced workers, industry and manufacturing interests, young people, the green economy, transportation, agriculture, housing, and local government.

Across the country, fossil fuel interests are mounting counter-attacks on common-sense climate initiatives that once seemed certain to become law.  And, yes, it can happen here, in Massachusetts.  Unless we fight back.

  • END –

Voters Will Have Options during the Pandemic

For Immediate Release

(6/18/2020) – By the terms of new legislation approved this past Tuesday in the State Senate, every eligible Massachusetts resident will have the option of voting by mail, a history-making first.  The bill, which passed unanimously, comes amid widespread safety concerns about in-person voting during the pandemic.

The legislation applies to both the September 1st state primary and the November 3rd general election.

“It was disturbing to see in-person voting produce chaos in Wisconsin,” said local State Senator Mike Barrett.  “People had to risk getting sick to cast a ballot.  For us, in Massachusetts, revamping elections almost overnight has not been without its problems.  But we’ve adapted and gotten the job done.”

The Massachusetts bill contains a number of provisions, including:

  • Implements an early vote-by-mail system: An application to receive an early voting ballot for the primary and general election will be mailed to all registered voters by July 15th. Both applications and ballots will be postage-paid.
  • Creates early voting for the primary and expands early voting periods: For the first time in Massachusetts, early voting will be available for the state primary, to take place from Saturday, August 22nd through Friday, August 28th. Early voting for the general election would take place from Saturday, October 17th to Friday, October 30th.  Early voting hours would vary according to the size of the municipality in order to give voters ample opportunity to participate while not overburdening the election departments of small towns.
  • Tasks the Secretary of State with creating an online portal: The bill requires Secretary Galvin to create an online portal so that voters can request an early or absentee ballot electronically. It must be operational by October 1st, in time for the general election.
  • Ensures early voting options for voters with disabilities: The bill charges Secretary Galvin with providing options for voters who require an accommodation.
  • Expands absentee voting: The bill provides for absentee voting by any person taking precautions related to COVID-19. Voters will also be able return absentee ballots via a secure drop box, in addition to the in-person and by mail submission options available for past elections.
  • Provides tools to assist clerks: Acknowledging the increased burden these options may place on municipalities and clerks, the bill provides for several accommodations to make the logistics of processing votes easier.
  • Makes in-person voting more efficient: The bill allows municipalities to consolidate polling places and eliminate the check-out table at these locations, allowing for a more efficient process and fewer poll workers.

The Senate bill must now be reconciled with similar legislation passed by the House of Representatives.  Legislators do not expect the differences to be difficult to reconcile.


Senate and House Pass Bill to Increase Health Data on COVID-19

For Immediate Release

The State Senate and House has moved to increase statewide, publicly-available data as it relates to the coronavirus.  The legislation, which passed with bipartisan support, aims to promote equity and transparency as Massachusetts confronts the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill also establishes a task force to study and recommend policy to address health disparities for underserved and underrepresented communities during the pandemic.  After receiving favorable votes in the Senate and House, the bill has advanced to the governor’s desk.

“Dr. Fauci reminds us that to fight the pandemic we have to follow the science,” said State Senator Mike Barrett (D-Lexington).  “Science depends on good, rigorous data.  In passing this bill, better data to guide decisions is what we’re driving at.”

Under the bill, the state Department of Public Health is required to compile, collect, and issue daily online reports on the number of people tested for COVID-19.  Data collection reports will include all positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths along with the gender, race, ethnicity, primary residence, occupation, disability, age, and primary language of each case.

The legislation also requires that daily reports include data and demographic information from municipalities and counties with more than 25 positive cases.

Importantly, the bill contains provisions to ensure more information from elder care facilities.  “The situation in elder care facilities is catastrophic,” said Barrett.  “We need all the information we can get.”

Sen. Barrett, who has called for more information from state and county correctional facilities, says the bill advances the issue in that respect, too.  Under the new legislation, the state’s Department of Public Health must also publish daily updates on the number of COVID-19 positive cases and mortalities among individuals who are incarcerated. The department will also be required to publish on its website, for each state and county correctional facility, the total number of residents per correctional facility; and the number of residents within each facility who are housed in a cell either alone or with another person.

In addition to requiring greater data collection, the bill requires the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to describe the actions it is taking to address disparities identified through the data collected.

In response to increasing concerns about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and disproportionately impacted populations, the legislation also establishes a task force to study and make policy recommendations for how to address these health disparities. The task force is required to issue an interim report by June 30, 2020, with a final report due August 1, 2020.