Until mid-October, the state’s largest prison, the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, had weathered the pandemic with only 11 confirmed coronavirus cases. But after a correctional officer tested positive, the virus has swept through the facility, infecting more than 250 inmates and about 20 employees, according to state statistics.
The outbreak has raised concerns about whether the state is doing enough to protect prisoners, who are double-bunked in dormitory-style buildings that aren’t designed for social distancing, as infections surge across the state.
“It’s really scary,” said Nhadija Taylor, who was unaware that her 70-year-old father, Floyd Hamilton, was ill until fellow inmates alerted his lawyer that he had been rushed to the hospital.
Taylor said she had to call a number of hospitals before locating him because prison officials wouldn’t say where he was or that he was being treated for COVID-19. Hamilton was hospitalized for a week, then returned to Norfolk on Nov. 23, according to his lawyer.
“I’m just hoping he stays healthy and the COVID being in his system doesn’t aggravate any of his other symptoms,” said Taylor, noting that her father has survived colon cancer and a heart attack during his 36 years in prison. “He’s not getting the care he needs.”
The Department of Correction notifies an inmate’s designated contact “if they are in critical condition,” according to department officials who declined to discuss Hamilton’s case, citing privacy laws. As of Tuesday, nine MCI-Norfolk inmates were hospitalized with the virus, they said.
Since April, nine state prison inmates have died from COVID-19, prison officials said.
“Since the earliest days of the pandemic, the Department of Correction has taken decisive action to protect the people entrusted to our care and implement safety measures informed by the latest scientific and public health understanding of the virus,” a department spokesman said. “As with the broader community, we will be living with the virus until there is a safe and effective vaccine, but the department will continue its strategy of screening, treatment, and containment to reduce its spread and mitigate its most severe health consequences.”
Prison officials said they have implemented a comprehensive testing program and numerous infection controls. All prison staff and vendors are screened for symptoms before entering the facilities, which are operating with “significantly enhanced cleaning and sanitizing,” they said. New inmates are quarantined when they arrive and moved into general population only after they test negative for the virus. Since March, the state’s prison population has decreased by about 1,200 inmates, allowing for more physical distancing, officials said.
But prisoner advocates and defense lawyers have been pushing for more inmates to be released as the virus spreads across the state and the country.
“These are incredibly virulent settings,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. “Like a wildfire, once it catches it spreads very quickly.”
In April, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that some prisoners, including those being held while awaiting trial or for violating parole or probation, could be released. But the court denied a request by a coalition of lawyers and prisoner advocates to order the release of inmates who had already been convicted, ruling that it lacked authority to change judicial sentences.
The court urged the state parole board and Governor Charlie Baker to act on requests for paroles, pardons, and commutations.
“They need to reduce the population,” said Matos, adding that inmates who are nearing the end of their sentences and don’t pose a risk to public safety should be released to home confinement or on other conditions. “It’s being done in other states. To not be doing it is basically saying it’s worth risking people dying.”
Hamilton’s lawyer, Ruth Greenberg, filed a motion in April seeking a new trial for Hamilton, who was convicted of first-degree murder for fatally shooting Efrain Dejesus during a 1984 robbery at Dejesus’ Dorchester home. She also urged the court to stay Hamilton’s life sentence and release him on bail, saying he was in poor health and at risk from the virus. That request was denied.
In June, a prosecutor in Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s office argued that Hamilton’s motion for a new trial “has no reasonable possibility of success, and the most recent data show that COVID-19 has not spread in Massachusetts prisons to the extent that was once feared.”
At the time, only two of 1,300 prison inmates tested for the virus were positive.
During one week in November, 162 of MCI-Norfolk’s 1,232 inmates tested positive and 172 inmates had active cases. As of Wednesday, 26 inmates and a dozen employees at Norfolk had active cases, according to state statistics.
“Medical staff is working hard but they can’t overcome the Petri dish created by prison administration,” said Greenberg, who has appealed Hamilton’s request for release to the SJC and is hoping that prosecutors will reconsider their opposition given the rising number of cases. “It is as if the DOC is running a terrible experiment in how to infect old men with COVID as much as possible.”
On Wednesday, Matthew Brelis, a spokesman for Rollins, said “we are extremely sympathetic to Mr. Hamilton’s situation. The SJC has provided limited legal relief for individuals serving a state prison sentence who are at greater risk in this pandemic. After sentencing, we are constrained by those limits.”
Rollins’s office urged Hamilton to seek compassionate release or a commutation from the parole board, he said.