As Massachusetts reopens, prisoners remain isolated

Suicide at Walpole facility raises questions about time alone

AS MUCH OF MASSACHUSETTS continues to reopen, the same loosening of restrictions is not present at the state’s prisons. Many inmates continue to live in lockdown-like conditions, as the Department of Correction works to hold coronavirus at bay.

Time lags, with complaints about boredom; there has been a three-month pause in programming services; and inmates say there is a lack of cleanliness in shared bathrooms. Prisoners at MCI-Framingham fear getting COVID when a third of their fellow detainees have had it. At MCI-Norfolk, people in restrictive housing are concerned about heat and poor air conditioning during prolonged periods indoors.

Prisoners have always been put in restrictive housing for disciplinary issues. During the pandemic, medical quarantine is being used to isolate potential virus carriers and COVID-19 positive inmates. Through their advocates, prisoners say medical quarantine has felt eerily similar to solitary confinement.

For Carlos Colon, the pandemic resulted in a deeper and more pointed confusion and despair. The 36-year-old had less than two years left on a 15-year sentence for armed robbery. He was found hanging in his cell at MCI-Cedar Junction on the morning of June 23.

Colon had a history of mental illness—an intake with a mental health check, a medication regimen, and depression after he was kept from seeing his mother at her death bed two years ago, according to sister Veronica St. Amand.

Carlos Colon and his deceased mother, Ana M. Cruz in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Veronica D’ Amand)

That melancholy only intensified during the pandemic, when he and others at the Walpole prison — along with the rest of the state’s prisons — remained in their cells for 23 hours a day. That other hour was for phone calls and showers (the Department of Correction has allowed two calls free a week). The rest of the time was spent alone, as visits with family were restricted in mid-March.

“Somebody with serious mental illness shouldn’t be in the Department Disciplinary Unit or in the Department of Correction’s 23-hour COVID lockdown,” said attorney Bonita Tenneriello of Prisoners’ Legal Services, speaking of a solitary confinement unit. Tenneriello has been staying in touch with Colon’s family. Colon reported being assaulted by correctional officers during his time at MCI-Souza-Baranowski, and was transferred to MCI-Walpole in January, where his family said he was happier. But then he was told he’d be transferred back to Souza, something that upset him, said St. Amand.

The family hasn’t been able to get the prison’s superintendent to acknowledge a suicide note, so they don’t know the exact reasoning behind Colon’s death.

But the extended time alone during the pandemic didn’t help, they think. “Putting someone in solitary for 23 hours a day is inhumane,” said St. Amand. “I know he deserves to be in prison, but people deserve to be treated better. That’s how I feel about that situation. People shouldn’t be treated like animals.” The Department of Correction said the Norfolk County district attorney’s office was notified of Colon’s death and the incident is under investigation.

The department says that “inmates are not placed in restrictive housing for COVID-19 related reasons. Rather, COVID-19 concerns are addressed through placement in areas identified for Medical Quarantine.”

Among its efforts to keep up morale is “fresh air time” outdoors, something that the DOC said it has been offering since mid-May and continues to expand. While in-person programming hasn’t continued, the department said it considers inmate medical and mental health services “critical” and has worked with a medical provider to continue providing those services during the pandemic. Prisoners who have good behavior are being rewarded with tablets with free programming.

Jessica Kant, an organizer for prison health advocacy group Deeper than Water, said she’s talked to prisoners who are severely depressed. “Some are writing wills, out of concern they’ll get COVID,” she said. Kant, who is a licensed mental health clinician, said she’s noticed prisoners’ speech has slowed down on calls, along with their ability to pinpoint events in the future.

Lisa Newman-Polk represents a prisoner with mental illness at Souza-Baranowski who was in medical quarantine after getting an MRI at a hospital. She has another who experienced the same thing after a surgery “It’s standard protocol after a hospital visit to be placed in segregation/solitary, or a unit that operates like segregation,” she said.

The quarantine unit only let men out for 30 minutes a day. “After complaints to DOC legal, the unit more recently increased the time out of cell,” she said. Newman-Polk said she is also former licensed social worker at the facility.

The new normal that Gov. Charlie Baker speaks about at press conferences is not something Newman-Polk and others anticipate at prisons.

“Many of the prisons are still in some version of a lockdown. I don’t see things going back to normal for the foreseeable future,” she said.

Kant said that some units at MCI-Norfolk had begun to loosen restrictions on isolation, but that changed after a prisoner collapsed in the prison’s kitchen and tested positive for COVID-19. A spokesman for the Department of Correction said he was unaware of the incident.

“For people in lockdown it’s replicating solitary, and pretty thoroughly. Guards bring meals to cells. The time outside of cells is limited,” Kant said.

For those who were around the sick prisoner, the concern of contracting COVID-19 is high, but the worry of being placed in medical quarantine is also stressful.

“Some people refuse testing if they know a positive test might send them to a solitary confinement unit,” Tenneriello of Prisoners’ Legal Services said. “But it’s a Catch-22 because refusing testing can also get you sent to solitary. While medical isolation is an appropriate response to COVID, solitary confinement is not.”

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, 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 long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, 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.

As of July 1, there are only three active cases of coronavirus among the more than 7,000 prisoners in the state’s prison system, with 379 previously having tested positive and recovered. There have been eight deaths.