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State correctional facility in Bridgewater emerges as hotspot of coronavirus infection

The number of virus deaths puts it on par with much bigger jails and prisons across the country

A corrections  officer walks between buildings at  the Bridgewater Treatment Center.
A corrections officer walks between buildings at the Bridgewater Treatment Center.Tom Herde/Globe Staff/file

The first wave of infection inside Bridgewater’s Massachusetts Treatment Center emerged in mid-March.

An ensuing facility-wide lockdown confined the roughly 560 inmates to their cells, some with communal showers and toilets, where they waited to find out if the invisible threat had spread.

It claimed an inmate’s life weeks later. Then it claimed another, and another, and another.

With four deaths, and more than 50 infections among inmates and employees, the medium-security correctional facility finds itself among the ranks of several larger and more well-known prisons and jails across the country that are battling an explosion of COVID-19 infections.

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The tally of infections from the state treatment center, which houses people incarcerated for sexual offenses and those deemed sexually violent, far outpaces other Massachusetts facilities, and its deaths put it on par with facilities such as Cook County Jail in Illinois, and Rikers Island in New York City. The entire federal prison system has reported only 16 in-custody deaths from the new coronavirus.

Nearly 100 inmates, and about 63 employees have been infected across the entire Massachusetts prison system, the bulk of them coming from Bridgewater. A fifth state inmate, an elderly man housed at the state prison in Shirley, also died because of the new coronavirus, officials said Thursday.

The outbreaks add fuel to the concerns of some health officials and prisoner advocates, who warned that unsanitary conditions and overcrowding inside correctional facilities could lead to a public health disaster.

“You’re sitting there in a group, not socially distancing, and no one has protective gear. It’s a petri dish," said a man who was recently released from the Bridgewater facility. The former inmate, who served five years at Bridgewater and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, left the facility last week.

“It’s crazy they waited so long to shut it down,” he added.

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Few details about the four Bridgewater inmates who died while in state custody have been released. Officials have declined to release their names, citing privacy issues. Each were transported to the hospital for treatment after falling ill, and later died of coronavirus-related complications, authorities said.

On March 20, Department of Correction officials placed the building into lockdown after an inmate first tested positive. Officials said the department had implemented guidance from state and federal officials across all state prison facilities to prevent the virus from spreading.

But the daily routine inside the Bridgewater center had up to that point mostly gone unchanged, according to several inmates and employees. Prisoners took meals inside the facility’s crowded dining hall. They sat together for group therapy despite concerns from some medical staffers, who warned continuing the sessions could lead to the virus’s spread.

Officials with the Department of Correction and Wellpath, the company it contracted to provide inmates mental health treatment, said group therapy sessions were continued just prior to the lockdown because the services were critical.

The department continues to work to reduce "to the greatest degree possible, the impact of the virus on our inmate population,” said DOC spokesman Jason Dobson. The department declined to comment more generally on the in-custody coronavirus-related deaths.

Guy Glodis, a lobbyist for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, said the union has no specific complaints about how the department has handled the coronavirus crisis. “As far as the union is concerned, they’re doing a good job under extraordinary circumstances,” he said.

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As the virus has charged through state prisons, it’s also reignited debate over criminal justice reform, pushing public officials in Massachusetts and across the country to balance public safety and public health concerns.

Earlier this month, a coalition of defense lawyers and civil rights attorneys argued to the state’s highest court that conditions at correctional facilities make containing the virus nearly impossible and asked for the release of nonviolent pretrial offenders, older inmates, and those near the end of their sentences. Several district attorneys argued that early release would endanger the prisoners and the public.

The state Supreme Judicial Court ordered that inmates awaiting trial — except those facing violent and other serious charges — could be released to help relieve the crisis. But it rejected pleas to release more prisoners, saying it does not have the authority to alter prisoner sentences.

So far, 296 inmates have been released from Massachusetts county jails since the court issued its order, according to statistics from the state.

Supreme court justices urged the state’s parole board to speed up its review of parole petitions. Nine inmates have been released on parole since the court’s decision earlier this month, with 23 approved for release under the state’s medical parole laws.

After he was released last week from Bridgewater, the former inmate encountered a changed world, and had to find new ways to dodge the virus.

He ended up at a local homeless shelter, sharing a bunk in a large room along with dozens of others.

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'It’s out the frying pan, and into a fire," he said.


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