Can we trust those who run our prisons and jails to keep 13,000 inmates safe from COVID as we head into this perilous winter?
Sadly, the answer seems to be no.
And that answer affects us all. It should go without saying that incarcerated people are human beings, to whom we have a duty of care no matter what they’ve done. And the walls that confine them don’t cut them off completely: There are tens of thousands of people on the outside who love and depend on them; and for three shifts a day, every day, hundreds of corrections officers and others travel back and forth between prisons and jails and their communities. If those we’ve locked up get sick, we do, too.
And they are getting sick. There have been recent, distressing spikes at several prisons, including MCI Norfolk, where the virus had infected more than 267 inmates — over one fifth of those held there — and 28 employees, as of Nov. 24. This week alone, 70 inmates and 20 staffers tested positive at Hampden County jails, which house about 1,300 people.
The pandemic has been disastrous, say inmate advocates. Jails aren’t testing enough, they say, making it more likely the virus will spread unchecked. And in prisons, where testing is more frequent, advocates say mask compliance is spotty and distancing nearly impossible. In some jails, inmates are double- or triple-bunked. At Souza-Baranowski prison, they are double-bunked for 22 hours a day, according to Elizabeth Matos, head of Prisoners Legal Services.
She and others say some prisons are routinely housing inmates who have tested positive with those who don’t yet have confirmed cases of the virus, or may not have it at all — a practice that proved to be disastrous for those in elder care facilities in the spring. And some inmates are lying about their symptoms to avoid quarantine.
Corrections officers move between COVID units and others, with inadequate precautions, Matos said. To control the spread of the virus, some prison inmates are in lockdown, confined to their cells with little programming or exercise. Some have been cut off from visitors, too. Lockdown, like solitary confinement, has disastrous effects, and Matos reports a spike in prisoners attempting to harm themselves.
“Lockdowns of this nature do permanent damage to people psychologically,” she said.
Matos and others have brought lawsuits to compel the release of inmates, so that fewer are exposed to the risk and to make it possible to properly distance those who remain. The state’s highest court cleared the release of most awaiting trial and called on the state to parole as many inmates as possible. Since April, about 4,500 have been released and paroled from jails and prisons, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, but it’s unclear how many of those would have been released anyway. And the pace of releases has slowed, according to their numbers. Attorneys say the state has been resistant to parole all who could be safely released, including some at highest risk. In late November, two inmates were denied medical parole until they became gravely ill with COVID, WBUR reported, their requests granted just hours before they died.
“It would be more honest if people would just say, ‘I’d rather see people die than take responsibility for releasing prisoners,’” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU.
“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,” said a DOC spokesperson.
Trust us, the state is essentially saying. But we’ve recently been reminded of just how big a leap of faith that is, courtesy of a devastating report from the Department of Justice, which found that the DOC has cared for those with serious mental illness so poorly that it violates their constitutional rights. Many of those inmates were placed in what amounts to solitary confinement, where some were neglected and even taunted by guards, investigators found.
These are the same officials we are now relying on to keep those in their charge, and the rest of us, safe from COVID? No, thank you.
It’s time to release many more of the inmates least likely to reoffend from their “care.” For all our sakes.