State authorities have suspended visits to inmates at all 16 state prisons, limiting the correctional facilities’ exposure to the outside world in hopes of keeping the Covid-19 virus at bay.
Attorneys will still be allowed to see any of the roughly 8,800 people incarcerated in state prisons, but visits from friends and family have been banned indefinitely, authorities said late last week. Several county jails have adopted similar measures.
The restrictions drew a sharp response from prisoner legal advocates, who called for more transparency about prison health and safety precautions, and encouraged a reduction of the population through the early release of some inmates.
One public health expert called correctional facilities a “powder keg” of potential virus outbreak.
"They are landlocked cruise ships, and they’re waiting to explode,” said Dr. Josiah Rich, professor of epidemiology at Brown University.
Rich said the inmate population – many of whom are older and have health issues – is confined to tight quarters, making any kind of social distancing impossible. Other health guidelines, such as limiting gatherings and maintaining hygiene, are also problematic behind bars.
“That means it’s not a matter so much of if there’s going to be an outbreak inside a prison, as when,” he said.
The threat of exposure affects more than inmates. Countless prison guards and staffers also shuttle in and out of these facilities each day.
The department has not received any reports of novel coronavirus infection inside state prison facilities, a Massachusetts Department of Corrections spokesman said Tuesday.
The department announced its new measures in a released statement last Friday. The department said prison staffers were taking extra precautions to prevent infections and following federal guidelines to protect both employees and inmates. This includes providing educational materials on the transmission of infectious diseases, encouraging frequent hand-washing, and providing inmates health care as needed, the statement said.
Details on inmate hygiene remained unclear. Massachusetts officials said inmates are provided soap and other hygiene products. But some of the nation’s correctional facilities, for example, consider hand sanitizer contraband, and have limits on possessing them.
The Department of Corrections also canceled several staff training sessions in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, and temporarily closed its staff shooting range.
County jailers took similar action last week. The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department ended family visits last week. The department said last week it had increased orders for gloves, masks, and other sanitary equipment. It also has a contingency plan if a detainee is diagnosed with the virus.
A spokesman for the sheriff did not return calls for comment.
The suspension of family visits at correctional facilities comes amid sharpening understanding of the effects of coronavirus. The virus has killed at least 74 people since it took hold in the United States, many of them elderly and suffering underlying conditions that exacerbated the infection.
Some prisoner advocates said the state’s decision to restrict access to correctional facilities came way too late -- a person can spread the infection for days prior to showing any symptoms.
Kate Piper, a paralegal with Prisoners' Legal Services, said MCI-Norfolk, a medium-level prison, was the picture of normalcy when she visited a client last Wednesday. There was no hand sanitizer in the lobby, Piper said. Prison personnel never asked her about being exposed to the virus before she entered.
Prisoners’ Legal Services, a non-profit that provides legal services for the incarcerated, demanded the state release more details about its coronavirus prevention plans.
“These people are loved and cared for by many people, and those people deserve transparency,” said Executive Director Elizabeth Matos.
Matos’ agency is asking the state to expedite the release of eligible elderly and sick inmates under the state’s compassionate release law, which allows inmates who are infirm or nearing the end of their lives to petition for early release. The state has granted about 10 such petitions since the program was implemented in 2018, Matos said.