As COVID-19 hits prisons, worry spreads

Officials, advocates differ over preparedness

WITH THREE PRISONERS and one corrections officer diagnosed with the coronavirus at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, the Department of Correction has developed a response plan for containment of the virus, including setting up screening tents with the help of the National Guard to take the temperature of all employees entering state prisons.

The department is using Centers for Disease Control and state Department of Health guidelines “to reduce, to the greatest degree possible, the potential impact of this virus on our correctional system while maintaining core services,” Carol Mici, the Department of Correction commissioner, said in a statement.

The three inmates who tested positive have been quarantined from the population, and the officer has been instructed to stay home and follow physician instructions. The Bridgewater site is a medium security facility that houses sex offenders and those who have been civilly committed as sexually dangerous persons.

Personal protective equipment is being used in “high-risk areas” and while personnel are interacting with quarantined prisoners, the DOC said. Any prisoners who leave DOC facilities for court or other appointments are being surveyed for COVID-19 symptoms, the DOC said. The Department of Public Health is making all decisions on whether to have inmates tested.

The Department of Correction said it is also doing additional cleaning, disinfecting high-touch areas and transport vehicles, and setting aside space to address individuals who are symptomatic. The DOC also said it provides soap and hygiene items to prisoners.

Elizabeth Matos, executive director of the advocacy group Prisoners’ Legal Services, says her organization has had reports of lack of soap, no alcohol-based hand sanitizer, inmates being double-bunked despite availability of single cells for separation, and civilian staff walking in and out of the medical units with no protective gear.

“There will undoubtedly be more [COVID-19 cases] and in other prisons and jails because the DOC and Commonwealth were not nearly as aggressive as they should have been at the outset regarding this population.” Matos said.

With no intensive care units inside the prisons, Matos says prisoners who become seriously ill will have to be transported to hospitals that are already near capacity. “We need to release people so that we can better contain and manage the crisis in the Commonwealth’s prisons and jails and in the communities where the people who work inside live,” she said.

Meanwhile, the department is increasing communications between prisoners and family after shutting down in-person family and friend visits. Officials are providing two, free 30-minute phone calls per week, and reinstatement of phone privileges to anyone who previously lost them.

Separately, the Plymouth County Sheriff’s office confirmed Monday that an employee tested for COVID-19 and received positive results on Sunday. Sheriff Joseph D. McDonald Jr.’s office says the employee will not return until testing negative, and at least for two weeks.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Over 50 immigrant detainees at Bristol County House of Correction sent a letter last week to Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Public Health, and American Civil Liberties Union airing concerns about crowded conditions and allegedly symptomatic prison guards. The detainees are asking for senior-aged detainees, those who haven’t been charged with aggravated felonies, and others who have not had bond hearings to be released.

A group of lawmakers, led by Northampton state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, filed emergency legislation authorizing state and county correctional facilities to release some prisoners, including those detained pretrial solely because they can’t afford cash bail under $10,000; pretrial individuals over 50 who didn’t qualify for a dangerousness hearing; and those over 50 whom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have classified as vulnerable populations with medical conditions.