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Judge rejects latest request to release prisoners due to COVID-19

The North Central Correctional Institution in Gardner.
The North Central Correctional Institution in Gardner.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

A Superior Court judge on Wednesday denied an emergency request to reduce the state prison population to slow the spread of COVID-19, ruling that although conditions inside the facilities “continue to deprive inmates of basic needs,” the state hasn’t violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

“The Court fully understands the consequences of any lapses in preventing the spread of a virus that has killed at least 19 prison inmates and over 15,000 Massachusetts residents,” Suffolk Superior Court Judge Robert L. Ullmann wrote in his order. “However, these lapses reflect sporadic mistakes and sporadic lack of sufficient attention to detail, which is far below the standard of deliberate indifference necessary to establish a constitutional violation.”

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In December, lawyers at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts asked Ullmann to order the Department of Correction to reduce the inmate population so that no prisoners would be housed in settings where they could not stay six feet away from others. The attorneys made the same request last spring but were turned down by the Supreme Judicial Court.

There are about 6,500 inmates in DOC custody, down from about 7,600 in April, state figures show.

Lawyers for the prisoners later expanded their argument, contending that language in the state budget instructs the DOC to “release, transition to home confinement, or furlough” people who can safely be set free to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

Ullmann didn’t address that argument, but said the advocacy group could amend its complaint to incorporate it.

Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said Thursday that the group plans to submit a revised complaint to the court.

“We have to remember that this is a setting that is completely under state control, literally a captive population that cannot socially distance, a fact the judge recognizes in this decision, and that by common sense calls for vigilance and heightened precautions to adequately protect people living in the most dangerous congregate settings of the entire pandemic,” Matos said in a statement.

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More than 3,000 DOC inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since last March, and 22 prisoners have died, including two people who died shortly after receiving medical parole. They aren’t counted in official tallies because they were no longer in state custody when they died.

The most recent fatality was a prisoner at North Central Correctional Institute in Gardner who died Monday, according to state data reported to the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In court papers, DOC lawyers have defended the agency’s handling of the pandemic, writing that its inmate vaccination program has been a success and noting the recent establishment of a home confinement program for a handful of eligible inmates. A DOC spokesman declined Thursday to comment on Ullmann’s ruling.

In his order, Ullmann noted that 71 percent of inmates offered the vaccine have accepted it. By contrast, more than half of DOC’s staff have declined the state’s offer to be immunized at sites operated by the agency.

A separate lawsuit seeks to reduce the inmate population in county jails. The SJC is scheduled to hear arguments in that case Friday.




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