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Virus outbreak at prison prompts new calls to release vulnerable inmates

Advocates call spike in COVID-19 at MCI-Norfolk alarming

About 172 inmates at MCI-Norfolk — more than one in 10 inmates at the medium-security prison — have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks.
About 172 inmates at MCI-Norfolk — more than one in 10 inmates at the medium-security prison — have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks.Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

Pointing to an outbreak of COVID-19 at one of Massachusetts’ largest correctional facilities, a group of state and federal officials on Tuesday called on Governor Charlie Baker to commute the sentences of some of the most vulnerable inmates.

US Representative Ayanna Pressley, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, state Senator Becca Rausch and others joined prisoner rights advocates to demand that the state take action to curb the spread of the virus.

“It’s a matter of life or death,” Pressley said at a news conference outside the State House. “The governor can with a stroke of a pen take necessary steps. Now is not the time for half-measures.”

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About 172 inmates at Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk — more than one in 10 inmates at the medium-security prison — have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks, officials said, and more cases are likely. Three inmates have been sent to a hospital for treatment.

Pressley and others said the alarming trend marks the virus’s return to prisons after they weathered severe outbreaks in the spring. Eight prisoners died of virus-related complications earlier this year.

Department of Correction officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, nor did Baker’s office.

Earlier this month, prison officials ordered all of MCI-Norfolk’s 1,200 inmates to undergo testing after several began displaying symptoms associated with the virus. About 300 test results are pending, officials have said.

US Representative Ayanna Pressley demanded that the state take action to curb the spread of the virus.
US Representative Ayanna Pressley demanded that the state take action to curb the spread of the virus.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The outbreak is especially worrisome to advocates because MCI-Norfolk houses some of the prison system’s oldest and most infirm inmates. Around 21 percent are 60 or older, and the facility’s “critical stabilization unit” houses up to 20 ailing prisoners. Prison officials said none of the recent positive cases came from within the unit.

The prison is also testing its staff: Nine have tested positive since early October.

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The executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services, Elizabeth Matos, said the positive tests at MCI-Norfolk won’t be the last such wave of infections in the state’s prisons.

Earlier this year, Matos’s group asked the Supreme Judicial Court to release vulnerable prisoners. The group argued that crowded, unsanitary prison conditions were a powder keg for the spread of the coronavirus. The state’s high court declined, ruling that, despite the increased risks, incarcerting people during a pandemic does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Since then, 144 inmates and 72 staffers have tested positive for the virus across the state prison system. In all, 543 inmates have tested positive since the pandemic took hold earlier this year.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins spoke at a press conference in front of the Massachusetts State House to call for the release of prisoners endangered by the continuing coronavirus pandemic.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins spoke at a press conference in front of the Massachusetts State House to call for the release of prisoners endangered by the continuing coronavirus pandemic. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Rollins also called on Baker to take additional steps to mitigate outbreaks and keep prisoners safe. Rollins, who supported prior efforts to decrease prison populations during the pandemic, pointed to initiatives in states like New Jersey. There, Governor Phil Murphy released more than 2,000 nonviolent prisoners last week, following the passage of legislation to reduce prison crowding.

Rollins called the prison outbreaks an “avoidable crisis," noting that they disproportionately affect Black and Latino prisoners, who often receive harsher sentences than white persons convicted of similar crimes.

Rollins also rejected suggestions that commuting the sentences of inmates nearing their release dates would bring more crime. Even those inmates who might not be eligible, she said, deserve to be housed in a safe environment.

There is no death penalty in Massachusetts, but “we’ve seen people die” of the virus, she said.

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Rausch, a Needham Democrat, said she spent Tuesday morning speaking with prison officials and inmates in Norfolk. Prisoners reported having adequate access to protective equipment and hand sanitizer, she said. Yet, they remain worried about their safety.

And for good reason, she said: "One person said to me, ‘Look, I’m no angel, but I don’t deserve to die in here because of COVID.’ ”


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