If we don’t get a handle soon on what’s happening in our prisons and jails during this pandemic, we’re looking at an epic disaster — and one that will reach well beyond their walls.
Though it’s unconscionable at this late stage, we are still flying mostly blind when it comes to the 14,000 or so men and women who sit in the state’s jails and prisons. Between April 5 and April 20, those facilities reported that only 548 inmates had been tested for the coronavirus, and that 214 of those had confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to a summary released Wednesday, under a court order that should never have been necessary to get this basic information; seven have died of the disease. A whopping 28 of the 200 women housed at MCI-Framingham had tested positive as of April 20, a rate higher than that at New York’s notorious Rikers Island. Bridgewater’s Massachusetts Treatment Center was another hotspot, with 41 infections among the 560 or so inmates. A couple of county jails had tested no inmates at all.
Here, again, the pandemic shows how we’re all connected. The health of inmates affects everybody: According to the report, at least 112 correctional officers disclosed that they have the virus, and 45 other staff. That’s 157 working people who went back to their families and neighborhoods at the end of their shifts carrying a highly contagious, potentially fatal infection.
Feeling frustrated at having your movements restricted over the last six weeks? Imagine being locked up with folks who could be infected, but from whom it is impossible to distance because you’re sharing bathrooms, and bunking with them.
The state, and some sheriffs, have taken measures they say will keep inmates safer: providing hand sanitizer and a cleaner environment in addition to restricting movement. The state’s worst sheriffs are doing far less than that for the poor souls under their watch. But if better hygiene alone could protect us, schools wouldn’t be shut down right now. The best way to keep inmates safer is to fix it so that there are fewer of them.
For a long time, leaders of both parties in this state have let their fear of releasing the wrong person govern their corrections policies. That fear now has life-or-death consequences for far more people.
“Everyone is afraid to be the ones to stick their necks out because of the population we’re talking about,” said Elizabeth Matos, head of Prisoners’ Legal Services.
After weeks of inaction, the state has finally started moving to mitigate the danger, but it has taken an army of advocates and a slew of ongoing legal filings to make it happen. On April 3, the state’s highest court ordered the glacial parole board to identify and accelerate the release of inmates who can safely return to the community. A spokesman said the board has picked up the pace, releasing 125 inmates since the SJC ruling, though it’s unclear how many of those would have gotten out anyway. In the two weeks following the ruling, 490 inmates — most held because they couldn’t make bail — departed county jails.
It’s not nearly enough. The state must relax its release requirements during the crisis, work harder to find stable placements for those in its charge, and entrust more inmates to the care of their families. It must include not only those who have been granted parole, but also those close to being eligible.
Whenever Governor Charlie Baker has been asked about coronavirus in the prisons he oversees, he has said he’s fine with the approach the state has been taking. A slew of public health advocates, legislators, and attorneys working round the clock for releases disagrees. His plodding approach is prolonging a clear and present danger.
Prisons and jails are as connected to the community as nursing homes. We ought to take a similar approach in both settings, even if we view inmates less benignly. Common sense is required, not to mention a mountain more testing.
Busy as he is, the governor (and sheriffs) must summon more urgency here. The virus isn’t just outrunning current efforts to avoid disaster among our inmates; it’s lapping them.
This column has been updated to reflect the fact that totals provided by prisons and jails for coronavirus tests and confirmed cases reflect only their reports between April 5 and April 20.