Baker administration crafting home confinement guidelines

Rep. Sabadosa calls it ‘an important first step’

WITH COVID-19 infections rising at state prisons, the Department of Correction is preparing to expand testing at the facilities and taking initial steps to release prisoners to home confinement.

The new initiatives were disclosed during a conference call between state lawmakers and members of the Baker administration, including Carol Mici, commissioner of the Department of Correction; Marylou Sudders, the secretary of health and human services; and Tom Turco, the secretary of public safety. Some of the lawmakers provided details on the discussion. Health and Human Services did not reply to an inquiry about the meeting.

One of the lawmakers, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton, said she is grateful the Department of Correction is developing guidelines on home confinement, which is required under state law. The guidelines would spell out how prisoners would be assessed to see which ones could be released to preapproved housing with electronic ankle monitors.

According to several legislators, the DOC did not provide details about the guidelines, but plans to release them within 60 days.

“It is an important first step toward responsible depopulation of our prisons that balances pressing public health needs with public safety. COVID has proven extremely serious and often deadly in all congregate living settings, and the creation of these much-needed guidelines recognizes that depopulation is necessary to keep our communities safe,” Sabadosa said.

The Baker administration officials also committed to system-wide surveillance testing through the end of the pandemic, according to Needham Sen. Becca Rausch, who was also on the call.

The number of prisoners who have tested positive at MCI-Concord rose from 33 to 81 between Saturday and Tuesday. The minimum and maximum security facilities at MCI-Shirley have a combined 31 cases. At MCI-Norfolk, where sources say the number of cases at one point came close to 200, the number is now down to 33.

A spokesperson for the Department of Correction did not reply to questions about the meeting with lawmakers, but said the agency “remains committed to the health and safety of those in our care, and we continue to perform a second round of universal COVID-19 testing at all facilities.”

Lawmakers have been taking interest in the COVID situation at state prisons. Sens. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain and Pat Jehlen of Somerville are co-sponsoring an amendment to the Senate budget that would require surveillance testing for all prisoners who consent. The amendment would also require the agency to release prisoners through medical parole and to home confinement. The Senate adopted the amendment on Wednesday night.

“Amendment 325 sets up an accountability system for DOC to pursue multiple pathways to release people safely, including home confinement, medical parole, and good time credits, and it mandates regular surveillance testing and public health standards at facilities during this pandemic,” said Chang-Diaz on Wednesday night. “We have an obligation to protect the health of all residents of our Commonwealth, and this amendment takes a necessary step towards doing just that.”

Rausch said she still has concerns over the COVID-19 reporting at state prisons, noting that the data dashboard for the DOC was last updated on November 11.

“It’s confusing to me because there’s a whole week worth of no data, at least on the dashboard,” she said.

The Department of Correction announced on Saturday that it was suspending family and friend visitation to prisoners for two weeks as prisoners undergo a second round of testing in all 14 facilities. Staffers were getting their first mandated required round of testing. The DOC has been testing symptomatic individuals since April, and recently began surveillance testing.

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.

Some advocates say these developments do not go far enough. “We are dealing with a highly vulnerable elderly and medically compromised population, especially at MCI-Norfolk, in a uniquely virulent setting. Like the rest of us in society, if the opportunity for social distancing is denied, we will be playing Russian roulette with people’s lives,” said Lizz Matos, director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, which is currently suing the DOC to release prisoners to home confinement.

She said that while the measures are a step in the right direction, they’re “overdue, and should strike everyone as an insufficient response to this outbreak.”