Prisons are Petri dishes for disease in the best of times, but they could become incubators for COVID-19 now. Prisoners sleep, eat, and shower in enclosed quarters with limited ventilation. Social distancing is impossible. Prison populations also have greater rates of serious health problems than the general population. Many are elderly, and have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancer, conditions that, if they become infected with COVID-19, make them more likely to require intensive care and especially vulnerable to dying of the disease.
On Saturday, officials announced the first case of COVID-19 at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater. An inmate serving a life sentence and his roommate have been quarantined from each other and the rest of the inmate population. We don’t have to speculate about what will happen as the disease hits the general prison system. We have seen it. In South Korea, the single largest COVID-19 outbreak and mortality cluster was from the Daenam Prison Hospital, where 101 inmates were infected and seven died. Even those in enclosed therapeutic settings — which are similarly configured to prisons — suffer when the coronavirus spreads through their communities. According to a report issued last week by the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 57 percent of the Life Care Center residents in Kirkland, Wash. who contracted COVID-19 needed hospitalization and more than a quarter of them died.
We have the tools to deal with this impending calamity in Massachusetts. But we need the political will. In 2018, Massachusetts enacted a program for the compassionate release of inmates, called medical parole. It covers those who are terminally ill as well as those permanently incapacitated and deemed too ill to present a safety risk. They are released with a medical plan and restrictions. While medical parole has rarely been used to date, it should be widely implemented now to cover prisoners the CDC has classified as vulnerable to COVID-19.
Releasing prisoners who are elderly and vulnerable is not just compassionate, it’s a matter of public safety. The coronavirus threatens not only prisoners but also the correction staff who shuttle between the community and their work. In Pennsylvania, a prison staffer tested positive for the virus; in New York a corrections employee died of the disease. While the Massachusetts Department of Correction recently limited family visits to prison inmates, it cannot wall off the prison from the lawyers who must see their clients, let alone the prison staff.
In facilities that are already at or over maximum capacity — as are Massachusetts prisons — large-scale quarantines are not feasible. Solitary confinement as a means of quarantine is a violation of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Governor Baker, the Department of Correction, the district attorneys, and the courts must work to release this vulnerable population. They will not be alone. The Cuyahoga County jail in Ohio is releasing at-risk inmates. A federal judge ordered the Arizona Department of Corrections to submit plans for managing COVID-19 in state prisons after civil rights attorneys described conditions that were a breeding ground for infection. The New York City Board of Correction has called on the city to release certain prisoners, including those on Rikers Island, and Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to do so last week.
Proposals to limit pretrial detention, release those within six months of completing a sentence, or who are detained for technical violations of probation and parole are important, but the release of vulnerable and elderly prisoners in high-risk categories is essential to protect them from contracting COVID-19.
Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge, is a professor at Harvard Law School. John Reinstein is a retired legal director of the ACLU Mass.
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