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Advocates ask court to release inmates as COVID-19 sweeps through state prisons

Prisoner health conditions ‘worse now than at any time since the pandemic began’

A view of MCI-Norfolk.
A view of MCI-Norfolk.Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

One of every six Massachusetts prison inmates — and hundreds of correctional workers — have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last six weeks, new figures show, underscoring prisoners’ vulnerability and spurring new efforts to free some of them.

Late Wednesday, lawyers in a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Correction made a dramatic plea in court filings to reduce the inmate population, sharing searing accounts from prisoners about COVID-19′s march through crowded correctional facilities.

One prisoner at MCI-Norfolk reported being quarantined with about 76 other men inside a formerly abandoned building that had broken sinks, one of which was clogged by an inmate’s bloody vomit. Prisoners at other facilities shared more stories of fear and panic.

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The situation in the prison system “is worse now than at any time since the pandemic began and the DOC has shown that it is utterly incapable of protecting the people in its custody,” attorneys for Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts wrote in the court filing. They said “urgent action” is needed to allow for social distancing by releasing inmates who can “safely rejoin the community” so that the remaining prisoners “are protected from further serious illness and death.“

The attorneys’ emergency request asks a Suffolk Superior Court judge to mandate measures that would, among other things, reduce the inmate population so that no prisoners would be housed in settings where they cannot stay 6 feet away from another person.

The petition is accompanied by written declarations from 38 inmates, including some infected with COVID-19, who describe crude living conditions, illness, and desperation brought on by long lockdowns instituted during virus outbreaks.

Willie Dortch, 48, said some prisoners don’t want to be moved into quarantine units because the conditions are so harsh.

“It is as if we are punished for getting sick,” wrote Dortch, who was infected while housed in a dorm at MCI-Concord and hospitalized. He said he is serving a 10-year sentence for a nonviolent breaking and entering case.

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Officials at the Department of Correction, who oppose the suit, say they’re doing all they can to reduce disease risk in the prisons, including setting up quarantine areas for sick people and requiring face masks for anyone entering the prisons. In addition, the inmate population has dropped by more than 1,200 people statewide since March, including more than two dozen medical paroles granted by the department.

They also point out that, while many inmates have tested positive in recent weeks, only 129 had active COVID-19 cases in the week that ended Dec. 16.

“The Department of Correction continues to take decisive measures to reduce opportunities for virus introduction and transmission, and our health and safety measures have always been based on the latest state and federal public health understanding of the virus,” read a statement from the department. “As we await delivery of the vaccine and prepare for its distribution within our facilities, we remain keenly focused on the health and safety of those in our care.”

Earlier this month, Governor Charlie Baker announced that Massachusetts jail and prison inmates and staffers — about 22,000 people in all — would be among the first groups to get vaccinated. Baker went beyond federal guidelines in issuing his plan even as calls to fast-track vaccines for prisoners prompted pushback and criticism in some corners. Plans for the rollout of the vaccine have not been released. Meanwhile, the virus continues to spread quickly through correctional facilities.

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COVID-19 has killed 13 Massachusetts prisoners so far, including two people who died shortly after being granted medical parole last month and weren’t included in official tallies reported by the state, according to Prisoners’ Legal Services.

State figures show two-thirds of all 2,251 COVID-19 infections in inmates and workers have been attributed to four facilities: MCI-Shirley, MCI-Norfolk, North Central Correctional Institution in Gardner, and MCI-Concord.

Across the state prison system, half of the 6,644 prisoners share a cell with at least one other inmate. At five facilities, including MCI-Norfolk, NCCI-Gardner, and MCI-Shirley, the number of inmates exceeds the prison design capacity, and the system as a whole has reached 89 percent of its design capacity, the same level of density reported in early June when virus spread began to slow, the filing said.

Dr. Amir Mohareb, an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, wrote in court papers that the prison system faces a higher risk of coronavirus infection than the general public.

“Under current inmate population levels in Massachusetts, there is an unacceptably high level of close contact between people in correctional facilities,” he wrote.

He also cited research that supports reducing inmate populations to lower transmission in correctional facilities.

The timeline of COVID-19 cases at MCI-Concord, MCI-Norfolk, NCCI-Gardner, and MCI-Shirley offers perspective on how quickly the virus can spread inside prison walls.

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At the Gardner facility, there were only four cases among inmates and staff up until Thanksgiving. Since then, another 161 prisoners and 13 workers have been infected.

MCI-Norfolk, which has about 1,200 prisoners, the largest population of any DOC facility, reported only 15 cases of the virus until early November. Since then, more than 460 prisoners and workers have been sickened, including an inmate who died while in custody and another who died after being released on medical parole.

A nearly identical scenario unfolded at MCI-Concord, which made it until mid-November with just 15 cases. At least 345 prisoners and workers have fallen ill since. One inmate died.

At MCI-Shirley, the virus showed up early this year, infecting nearly 200 prisoners and workers and killing three inmates. COVID-19 abated, then roared back in recent weeks, killing another inmate in custody and a prisoner who died shortly after being granted medical parole.

The infections reported by the DOC are separate from COVID-19 cases reported by county jails, which are run by elected sheriffs. Since April, the virus has sickened more than 1,500 inmates and workers at county jails, including two prisoners who died, state figures show.

In a decision in April, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled reducing the prison population is necessary during the pandemic and established a system to let inmates awaiting trial for nonviolent crimes to seek release. Last week, lawyers asked the SJC to reconsider the case given the spike in COVID-19 cases statewide.

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But the April ruling had little bearing on the inmate population at the DOC, where about 93 percent of prisoners have already been convicted. In June, Prisoners’ Legal Services asked the SJC to mandate a plan for releasing convicted prisoners, but the court declined.

Since April, DOC figures show the prison population has dropped by 978 inmates or 13 percent, but Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, attributed the reduction to a decline in new admissions because jury trials have been suspended.

Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff contributed.


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.