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Mass. DOC putting prisoners’ lives at risk amid coronavirus outbreak, advocates say

Cellblock at MCI Cedar Junction in Walpole.
Cellblock at MCI Cedar Junction in Walpole.David R. Ryan/Globe Staff/file

Massachusetts is putting the lives of terminally ill or medically infirm prisoners at risk for COVID-19 by failing to quickly identify those who qualify for medical parole and release them before the virus could spread though the lockup facilities, according to inmate advocates.

Ruth Greenberg, a lawyer who represents 10 inmates seeking medical parole, seven of whom are terminally ill, said the public health of her clients and others is at risk if Gov. Charlie Baker and other officials do not immediately act to protect the most vulnerable inmates.

“There should be a rush to grant medical parole, and (for) alternative confinement,” Greenberg said in an interview. "Prisoners, correction staff and their families, and the public at large, would all be made safer.”

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The state Department of Correction Sunday announced that three inmates and one correction officer have tested positive for coronavirus at the Massachusetts Treatment Center, a medium-security prison in Bridgewater reserved for sex offenders.

On Saturday, officials confirmed one case of the virus at the facility, All of the infected inmates have been quarantined, the agency said.

A group of state lawmakers concerned that the state’s prison could become breeding grounds for the disease filed legislation to expedite the release of non-violent offenders who are most at risk for contracting the disease, such as those with compromised immune systems.

Greenberg said state prison officials have also been slow to relocate inmates already deemed eligible for medical parole by Correction Commissioner Carol Mici.

Among them is Miguel Vazquez, 65, who remains at MCI-Norfolk despite Mici granting Vazquez that status on Jan. 2, Greenberg said. Officials have not shown any urgency to relocate him — and the inaction puts him in harm’s way, she said.

“If Miguel Vazquez catches coronavirus between Thursday and next Friday, that death is on the hands of Carol Mici and Governor Baker," Greenberg said. "If he gets sick and dies, and infects a guard or a guard’s family on the way, it’s the fault of Carol Mici and Governor Baker.”

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In a statement, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said parole hearings and medical parole petitions continue to be reviewed and acted upon.

The agency is working with the correction department, county sheriffs and defense attorneys " . . . to provide flexibility in parole hearing formats and to identify the appropriate post-release placement sites and medical providers that the law requires for medical parole candidates,” the statement said.

A spokeswoman for Baker Sunday referred to previous comments he has made, saying he would rely on public safety and public health officials on issues related to releasing non-violent prisoners at risk for coronavirus.

“I’m going to take my guidance on all of those issues from the folks at public safety and the folks at the command center at the Department of Public Health,” Baker said Saturday.

On Thursday, a group of state lawmakers led by Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, a Northampton Democrat, filed legislation that would expedite the release of non-violent inmates who are close to the end of their sentences, are medically vulnerable, qualify for medical parole, or are more than 50 years old.

It also requires the Department of Correction to step up efforts to clean facilities and ensure prisoners have free access to essentials like soap. The measures are needed to protect prisoners, and ensure correction staff and their families are not infected, Sabadosa said.

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“Do you care about the people working in those facilities, and do you care about their families?” Sabadosa said in an interview. “Then you are going to want to decrease those populations, and reduce the risk for everyone.”

The state bill followed an open letter signed by more than 30 prosecutors across the country, including four from Massachusetts, calling for immediate steps to reduce the impact of coronavirus.

Those measures included identifying and releasing elderly inmates, as well as those with medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to infection who don’t pose a threat.

Lisa Newman-Polk, an attorney representing more than a dozen clients who are now prisoners in Massachusetts facilities, said she fears that once coronavirus gets inside prisons and other lockup facilities, it will spread fast among prisoners and staff.

“We need to make sure that we are only keeping people incarcerated who are dangerous to society,” Newman-Polk said. “We have to reduce the number for the safety of everyone, and that includes the staff.”

Newman-Polk, who has worked for the Department of Correction as a mental health clinician in the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, said prisons by design would make it easy for coronavirus to spread. Corrections officials and prisoners are in close quarters, often in physical contact, making it difficult to follow guidance on combating the coronavirus from the US Centers for Disease Control and state officials.

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“This is an issue that needs to be addressed now, and not tomorrow,” she said in an interview.

The Department of Correction must also put in place stricter cleaning protocols, including deep cleaning of facilities and free soap for prisoners, she said. Staff and prisoners must also be trained to follow CDC guidelines.

“They are all in this together,” she said. “It’s got to be a collective effort by staff and prisoners.”

In January, the state Supreme Judicial Court struck down Department of Correction regulations that made it more difficult for prisoners to petition for medical parole.

In that case, Greenberg represented Joseph Buckman, who is terminally ill with lung cancer. Buckman is serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife in 1997, and his medical parole remains pending.

She said she represents three terminally ill prisoners at the Treatment Center in Bridgewater, and four other terminally ill inmates at MCI-Norfolk, including Buckman.

As of March 11, 53 inmates have filed medical parole petitions since April 2018, the Department of Correction said in a statement, with fifteen petitions have been granted, including two last week.

Vazquez, who is blind and determined by physicians to be incapacitated, has been serving a life sentence for a homicide conviction 30 years ago, remains at the prison after being granted medical parole, Greenberg said.

Mici determined that he poses no threat to the public when she granted medical parole, Greenberg said. The correction department is required by law to assist Vazquez in finding new accommodations.

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“The commissioner’s calculus for medical parole has to change in light of the coronavirus,” Greenberg said.

Laura Crimaldi and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.