Coronavirus infection in state prisons more than two times statewide rate

Extraordinarily high rate among women inmates at MCI-Framingham

THE CORONAVIRUS INFECTION rate among inmates in the state prison is more than two times than the statewide rate, according to new figures from the Department of Correction.  

Prisoners’ Legal Services sent out an analysis on Friday analyzing the rate of infection among the 64 prisoners out of 7,841 Department of Correction inmates who have contracted the virus, finding a rate of 0.82 percent. That is more than two-and-half times the statewide rate of 0.3 percent. 

Among the 218 female inmates at MCI-Framingham, the rate is nearly 10 times that of the overall state prison population, with 17 prisoners, or 7.8 percent of the facility’s population, infected.   

“These are alarming numbers, especially given the fact that so little testing has actually been done in prisons and jails despite large numbers of symptomatic staff and prisoners in quarantine,” Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said in a press release. “The rates are higher even than those in Lombardy, the hardest-hit region of Italy. Lives are at immediate risk without a rapid reduction in the prison population through release.” 

Three prisoner deaths from COVID-19 have occurred. 

A week ago, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled on emergency petition from prisoner advocates that many of those being detailed before trial in county correctional facilities could be released on personal recognizance, following hearings, in an effort to reduce spread of coronavirus behind bars. The ruling did not apply to anyone serving a sentence following trial.  

The Department of Correction is currently instituting a systemwide lockdown to enforce social distancing recommendations 

In addition to the prisoner infections, there are 28 confirmed coronavirus cases of among Department of Correction staff an13 cases among vendors who do work at state prisons 

“The Department of Correction continues to take unprecedented steps to prevent COVID-19 introduction or transmission.  DOC leadership, staff, and our contracted medical provider, Wellpath, are focused on reducing, to the greatest degree possible, the potential impact of this virus on our inmate population,” said spokesman Jason Dobson of the increase in positive cases in Framingham.

Meanwhile, US District Court Judge William Young has ordered the release of a total of 43 immigrant detainees being held at Bristol County correctional facilities in North DartmouthThis is the largest number of individuals released from custody due to COVID-19 nationally. 

The immigrant releases are the result of an ongoing lawsuit brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Worker & Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School against US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bristol County sheriff’s office. 

The lawsuit, certified this week by Young as a class action, was brought on behalf of detainees claiming poor sanitary conditions and tight quarters during a pandemic where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is asking people to remain six feet apart to prevent spread of the coronavirus.  

Young ordered released detainees to be picked up by car and taken to an approved residence where they will be quarantined for 14 days, and remain under house arrest unless they have court hearings or medical appointments. Local authorities and state police will be made aware of their new addresses.  

Hearings for immigrant detainees have been held almost daily. The number of people being released has grown significantly after two correction staffers at the Bristol County House of Correction tested positive for COVID-19 a couple weeks after a medical provider also tested positive.  

More than 50 detainees have sent several letters to Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, the state’s congressional delegation, and ICE claiming unsanitary conditions and exposure to coronavirus from guards.  

To reduce crowding at the facility, the detainees urged officials to release those with serious medical conditions, those who haven’t been charged with aggravated felonies, those who have not had their bond hearings, and those who have consented to deportation.  

During proceedings, it was revealed that 11 detainees no prior convictions or pending charges and were being held solely on civil immigration violations. All of them were subsequently release by Young.  

Prisoner and immigration advocates have been urging the release of inmates and detainees in county and state facilities since coronavirus started hitting the state in early March. Immigrant detainees are held in sheriff-run correctional facilities in two counties, Bristol and Plymouth, which have contracts for immigrant detention with ICE. 

Hodgson, who has voiced sharp disagreement with the release of detainees, took to Twitter on Friday afternoon. The practice of judges releasing prisoners due to COVID-19 puts our neighborhoods, communities and nation at greater risk,” he wrote. “People released from [Bristol County] this week have been charged or convicted of crimes including elderly rape, fentanyl trafficking, enticing a child under 16, etc.”   

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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.

Oren Sellstrom, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights, said Hodgson was wrong about the detainees who have been released. Details of those released are under seal by the Court and improper to disclose, but we can say that factually Sheriff Hodgson’s statement is false,” he said in a statement. “The true public health risk to communities is the Sheriff’s continued detention of people in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.