COVID-19 cases balloon at MCI-Norfolk

After governor’s remarks, all staff being tested

THE NUMBER of COVID-19 cases at MCI-Norfolk rose to 74 on Tuesday, up from 26 on Friday, as the state continued to test all staff and inmates.

Facility-wide testing began midway through last week, and so far only 238 out of the 1,200 inmates have gone through the process. That means 31 percent of the inmates tested have tested positive so far, although those who were symptomatic were tested first. None have required hospital care yet.

Across 16 state prison facilities, there are 77 active cases among inmates– 74 of those are at MCI-Norfolk.

There are a minimum 12 staff cases at MCI-Norfolk – nine correctional officers and three other staffers, according to the DOC’s staff reporting data.

The DOC says it will continue facility-wide testing at MCI-Norfolk as long as prisoners have the virus. In-person visitation for family and friends has been suspended, and prisoners are contained to their cells in a lockdown.

Prior to yesterday, testing was encouraged but not required for all staff. Gov. Charlie Baker changed that policy on Monday when he said at a press conference that staff will be required to be tested to go into work.

“If a staff member doesn’t want to get tested, then we’re gonna’ tell them not to come back to work,” he said. The Department of Correction subsequently reached an agreement with union representatives to ensure mandatory COVID-19 testing for all staff who have primary contact with prisoners. There is no word on whether contracted personnel will also be tested.

Staff testing has begun at MCI-Norfolk and Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, and a schedule for testing at other facilities is being developed, a DOC spokesman said.

The agency says that throughout the pandemic, it has made testing available to all staff and ordered that any staff who show symptoms, receive a positive test result, or have a close contact who tested positive be restricted from entering a facility or returning to work until medically cleared.

Those showing symptoms are being quarantined until their tests come back. Nearly 11,000 COVID-19 tests have been conducted across all 16 DOC facilities, which collectively house about 6,800 people.

Nuri Muhammad is currently in a two-man cell at MCI-Norfolk waiting for his results. He was tested along with the rest of the other 61 men in his unit Tuesday. He said he was told his results would come back in two days. “Everyone is stressing out and nervous, especially the older men,” he said in a phone conversation communicated to CommonWealth through his girlfriend Lindsey Mercado.

Muhammed is 53, and says he’s being “extra cautious about cleanliness” out of concern over his underlying health issues, which include hypertension. All the prisoners have two cloth face masks that were manufactured by other prisoners.

He said prisoners are stuck in cells for at least 23 hours a day, and that correctional officers have been making cold meals (Tuesday night it was a bologna sandwich with an apple) so the men can eat them in their cells, instead of going to the mess hall.

Prisoner advocates have raised concerns that the prisoners at MCI-Norfolk are at higher risk to contract the virus because they tend to be older than inmates at most of the other state facilities.

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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.

The oldest prisoner at MCI-Norfolk is 87, according to state data. On Friday, attorneys at Prisoners’ Legal Services filed a motion in an ongoing lawsuit seeking the release to home confinement of older sentenced prisoners and those with longtime medical issues.

Despite a Supreme Judicial Court ruling in June that the Department of Correction has the authority to implement such a program, the agency did not do so. (The court in that ruling declined to order the release of convicted prisoners.)