Coronavirus in Prisons: Has the Massachusetts Department of Corrections Done Enough?

Since March, the novel coronavirus has been tearing apart long-standing institutions — and Massachusetts prisons are no exception. Behind bars, tight quarters render social distancing and proper sanitation impossible. The result is a population stuck in a system that is unfit to protect prisoners from the virus.

“Massachusetts prisons and jails will inevitably be breeding grounds for COVID-19,” write the Prisoners Legal Services, a nonprofit organization. “[…] Prisoners are unable to disinfect their cells and common areas, or wipe off telephones, due to lack of adequate supplies.”

Many institutions, such as schools, are faced with the challenge of preventing large groups of people from gathering indoors while maintaining a sense of normalcy. But, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections has a very different task: keeping prisoners inside while preventing the spread of the virus. And the agency must do so while adhering to a range of public health standards.

“[Our] response to COVID-19 has included proactive changes to training, policy, and practice,” reports the Department of Corrections. “[We have been] consistent with and responsive to public health guidance from the Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control.”

As of early August, a total of eight inmates have died due to COVID-19 and 390 positive coronavirus cases have been detected in Massachusetts’ prisons. The Department of Corrections notes that, since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring, it has been working to reduce its jail and prison population, which totals some 8,700 people. This effort has included the agency issuing more good-time credits to eligible prisoners, particularly those who have already served most of their sentences. This is occurring at a time when the state’s prison population saw a 5.4% decrease in 2018 from the previous year, according to the New York-based research group, the Vera Institute of Justice. Massachusetts also reports that it has been conducting universal COVID-19 testing in all 16 of its state-run facilities, benefiting those that remain in prisons.

“Any inmate who meets criteria for testing is tested, and any inmate requiring a hospital-level of care is hospitalized,” the DOC said in a statement.

But criminal justice advocates argue otherwise. Nonprofit organizations such as the Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts asserted that the Department of Corrections has done very little to protect prisoners during the pandemic. The Prisoners’ Legal Services has collaborated with the American Civil Liberties Union in filing lawsuits against the Department of Corrections to push for a more aggressive response from the agency. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court revealed in May that some 993 prisoners were released since April — though it remains unknown how many were released as a direct result of coronavirus. Both groups contend that the pressure resulting from its combined efforts helped to bring about those early releases.

“It took [the ACLU’s] lawsuit and our lawsuit to pressure the parole board to just do its job,” explained Elizabeth Matos, Executive Director of the Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts nonprofit organization.

The nonprofits go a step further. While the Department of Corrections claims to continue releasing prisoners, both organizations explained that the groups being released were already on parole — they would have been released even without a pandemic.

And while the policy is controversial among some observers, advocates argue that the underlying problem exposed by the coronavirus remains unsolved: prisons are crowded, and thousands of people who are either medically compromised or elderly remain vulnerable to the disease.

“There are people who are not eligible or in the process,” said Matos. “There are people who, for example, are elderly and sick. There’s a process for parole petitions but many [of these people] have been denied.”

The Massachusetts Department of Corrections had no comment.

The Prisoners’ Legal Services won’t be stopping their fight soon. The organization hopes to prevent the spread of the virus by continuing its advocacy for the release of prisoners.

“[We hope to] release people on home confinement furlough and good time [credit],” said Matos. “Also, the DOC commissioners person has the final say on medical parole petitions […] She could also be more accommodating with these decisions.”

This story was completed as a reporting assignment for The School of The New York Times.

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