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State’s highest court refuses to release prisoners due to coronavirus

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The state’s highest court on Tuesday denied a lawsuit seeking the quick release of convicted prisoners due to the ongoing pandemic.

In its ruling, the court acknowledged that prisoners are at an increased risk for COVID-19, but found that incarceration during a pandemic does not necessarily amount to cruel and unusual punishment. The court noted that the state’s Department of Correction has followed federal health guidelines and is conducting extensive testing in its facilities.

The decision dealt a blow to one of several efforts to reduce the prison population during the pandemic. Prisoners’ Legal Services, acting on behalf of a group of inmates, filed a lawsuit in late March that sought the release of many state prisoners, arguing that crowded, unsanitary prison conditions were a powder keg for coronavirus spread.


The inmates’ attorneys had also asked the court to order Governor Charlie Baker to use his emergency powers to release eligible offenders. The court ruled Tuesday that it did not have the authority to force the governor’s hand.

The matter is now headed back to Superior Court, where the class-action lawsuit is ongoing.

Jake Wark, spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security released the following statement Tuesday:

"The administration is pleased that today’s decision appropriately reflects the unprecedented steps that Massachusetts’ criminal justice agencies have taken to support the health and safety of the people in our care, our vendors, and staff, and we remain committed to adopting effective strategies that protect the public at large while safely managing our facilities.”

Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, expressed disappointment Tuesday that the court declined to order prisoners released.

“In addition to a public health crisis, there is a serious mental health crisis in our prisons and jails,” she said in a released statement. "COVID protocols are also preventing clients from even accessing basic medical care. Without releases, the dangerous conditions we are seeing now will only escalate.”


In early April, the DOC commissioner ordered a systemwide lockdown, forcing inmates to spend spend 23 hours a day inside their cells, with inmates in dormitory-style housing confined to their units. Authorities also stepped up cleaning procedures, and made hand sanitizer and some personal protective equipment available to inmates.

Health specialists and prisoner rights’ advocates have warned of a potential public health disaster inside correctional facilities, where crowding and a lack of hygiene can increase the possibility of virus transmission of the virus. In a separate lawsuit, the court ordered county sheriffs to take steps to reduce the number of pretrial detainees in county jails. To date, nearly 900 pretrial inmates have been released.

The virus’ spread through state prisons has slowed in recent weeks.

To date, the DOC has conducted more than 7,600 COVID-19 tests, slightly more than the 7,188 inmates in DOC custody. About 50 inmates are currently considered positive for the virus, while another 335 have recovered following a previous positive test result, the state said.

Eight inmates have died of the coronavirus in state custody, authorities said.

But even as the initial wave of the virus infections inside state prisons appears to have crested, health authorities have warned about a potential second wave.

Vernal Coleman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @vernalcoleman.