fb-pixel

A cry for help from inmates caught in a coronavirus outbreak in Bridgewater

Fourteen inmates and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, but inmates say they have no way to protect themselves

Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

He lives at the center of a coronavirus outbreak, one of the worst in Massachusetts.

But Glenn Christie doesn’t have the option of going into self-quarantine or even staying six feet away from other people. He’s under lockdown at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater in a 10-by-20 foot room with five other inmates who share communal toilets and showers.

And he’s getting scared, especially since one of his roommates was taken away with a fever and cough a few days ago, according to his lawyer. Ten inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in little more than a week, along with four staff members.

Advertisement



“We are completely in the dark,” said Christie in a phone interview, noting that workers in protective gear came on Thursday to take away his sick roommate’s personal belongings. “I know the numbers are increasing … People are coughing and sneezing. But they have not bothered to check everyone.”

The roughly 560 inmates at the treatment center, the vast majority convicted of serious sex offenses, are not the most sympathetic victims of coronavirus. Christie, for example, is serving time for a probation violation following his conviction for child rape and indecent assault on a child under 14.

But they do face an unusual risk of contracting the virus with almost no resources — including information — that would help them stay safe. Christie said prison staff has not confirmed the identities of any of the victims to them or even given inmates hygiene tips to reduce the threat.

‘We are not allowed beyond our six man dorm rooms, except to use the “communal” bathroom—a cesspool of germs as we are running out of soap....It is on the verge of panic in here.’

Massachusetts Treatment Center inmate Glenn Christie, in a March 20 e-mail to his lawyer, David Rangaviz, with the subject line "Scared...urgent update!!!"

Next Tuesday, prisoner rights advocates will argue to the state’s highest court that many of the inmates at Bridgewater and other state prisons should be set free for their own safety. Attorney David Rangaviz will probably argue separately on Christie’s behalf.

The advocates, including the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers say that crowded conditions and understaffing make COVID-19 “virtually impossible” to stop in prisons and county jails.

Advertisement



“There is a rapidly growing outbreak of a deadly, infectious disease in a facility that primarily houses people convicted of sex offenses,” wrote Rangaviz in his appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court. “They are among the most detested members of our society. But they are not sub-human. They should not be left in there to suffer and die.”

Department of Correction officials do not have the authority to reduce prisoner sentences, but department leaders are “focused on reducing, to the greatest degree possible, the potential impact of this virus,” said spokesman Jason Dobson.

He said the department has placed dispensers of alcohol-based hand sanitizer at various locations and they update inmates about the coronavirus outbreak, though without identifying which inmates are sick.

Dobson said state prisons question and take the temperature of all people who enter Correction Department facilities, including the Bridgewater treatment center. Family and attorney visits have been suspended and any inmate who gets sick is separated from the other prisoners, receiving meals and medical treatment inside single cells.

‘Hi Beautiful it’s Sunday 1:30 pm. I don’t know what’s going on. We aren’t getting answers from any one and we talked to a Lt. And a Captain. But that got us nowhere. This place has no clue what to do. They won’t even let us shower. It’s as if the whole world is ending and we’re stuck in a cage.’

Massachusetts Treatment Center inmate, in a March 22 e-mail to his wife, with the subject line "I miss you"

So far, the approach has mostly succeeded. Only one other prison among the Correction Department’s 16 facilities has disclosed any coronavirus cases — one staff member at the prison in Shirley has tested positive.

But the Massachusetts Treatment Center has emerged as a hot spot, with 10 inmates, three employees, and one medical staffer diagnosed with the virus.

Advertisement



It’s not clear why the facility in Bridgewater would have so many cases, but records obtained by the Globe show that state authorities were warned about the potential spread of disease as early as 2018. Department of Health inspections of the treatment center in 2018 and 2019 noted hundreds of repeat sanitation failings, including mold and poorly maintained shower and bathroom facilities.

State inspectors in 2018 and 2019 warned then-superintendent Lisa Mitchell that “the Department is concerned with the increased risk of disease transmission with the high number of inmates being exposed to such unsanitary conditions.”

But correction spokesman Dobson said that most of the negative findings "involved dirty/dusty vents, plumbing maintenance issues, soap scum, and wall/ceiling/floor paint/tile damaged. He said the agency “has acted rapidly to address those which involved sanitary conditions.”

One employee at the treatment center said medical staffers raised concerns about the possible spread of coronavirus, but they were ignored. This employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the center continued treatment sessions with about 10 inmates at a time until last Friday, after the first inmate tested positive.

This staffer said center leaders have been “reactive rather than proactive.”

Prisoners at the treatment center have been in a lockdown since last Friday. That means most can leave their rooms only to use the bathroom, shower, get their medication, and make short phone calls. Inmates in different units have slightly different routines.

Advertisement



But being in a lockdown doesn’t mean the threat of infection is eliminated or even reduced. Christie said the inmates in his unit line up in a hallway to get their meals and medication — 50 or more at a time.

Another inmate, Michael, said he gets his meals served on plastic foam trays, with rolls handled by workers wearing gloves that may have touched contaminated surfaces. Phones are not cleaned between calls. Staffers have been spraying down door handles with bleach, he said. But he doubts that’s enough.

“They just spray them and leave it. They don’t wipe them down,” said Michael, who asked that his last name not be used because he fears retaliation.

Glenn Christie is 54 and in a wheelchair with various medical problems. He is six months from being released from the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, which has become a hot spot for the coronavirus.
Glenn Christie is 54 and in a wheelchair with various medical problems. He is six months from being released from the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, which has become a hot spot for the coronavirus.Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board

Perhaps the worst part is not knowing.

“They won’t tell us anything,” said Michael, who is serving time for possessing child pornography. “We don’t know what’s going on."

But Michael, 32, said he worries more about the older inmates who already had serious health issues.

"It’s definitely frustrating and scary for a lot of people, " said Michael, noting that an inmate in a room near his was sick for several days before being taken away without explanation. “There are a lot of people worried about what’s going to happen to them. They took two more people out today.”

Next week, Glenn Christie’s lawyer will argue to the Supreme Judicial Court that his client is especially vulnerable and should be released.

Christie, 54, is in a wheelchair, unable to walk because of a narrowing of his spinal column. He suffers from kidney disease and high blood pressure and he had cancer, which he fears has returned.

Advertisement



“I have no doubt, if I don’t get out of here, I’m going to get the virus,” said Christie, who is six months away from being released. “You can’t avoid it.”


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com. Vernal Coleman can be reached at vernal.coleman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @vernalcoleman