DOC ordering second round of universal COVID-19 testing for prisoners

Cases jump from 3 to 33 at MCI-Concord

THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION is instituting a second round of system-wide, universal COVID-19 testing following an outbreak of the virus at several of its 16 facilities.

The agency has announced visitation from friends and family of prisoners will be suspended for two weeks while this occurs. This will also be the first round of universal testing for staff.

“As part of a concerted effort to protect the health and safety of inmates, patients, and staff, the Massachusetts Department of Correction is taking affirmative steps in a continuing effort to reduce the introduction, exposure, and transmission of COVID-19 at its facilities,” the agency said in a statement on Saturday.

There is a significant spike of cases at MCI-Concord, which went from having three cases to 33. The number of prisoners with the virus jumped to a high of 178 at MCI-Norfolk, or 14 percent of the 1,200 inmates there. Two men have been hospitalized, and family members said they have seen others taken away in ambulances with respiratory issues. As of Saturday evening, that number dropped to 161 cases at MCI-Norfolk.

The DOC began widespread testing at MCI-Norfolk two weeks ago when two prisoners tested positive. Since then, the entire prison has been tested. In addition, staff, per a union agreement, are now required to be tested.

There are also 24 cases at MCI-Shirley Minimum and six at MCI-Shirley Medium.

This week, advocates and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins urged Gov. Charlie Baker and state correction officials to release inmates to home confinement, arguing that this is a good way to stem the spread of COVID-19, and has been done in other states like California and New Jersey.

“As governor, you hold the necessary clemency and emergency powers to release individuals back to their families and loved ones. The ongoing pandemic has provided sufficient reason to exercise this authority,” the two women said in a letter to Baker.

Attorneys have expressed concern for their clients inside. Defense attorney Patty DeJuneas said this week that one of the prisoners she works with at MCI-Norfolk was ill with COVID-19 but did not receive a test until his symptoms were almost gone. He was put into a quarantine unit with other men, and his results eventually came back positive. This isn’t the case with everyone, she said.

“The DOC has put people who haven’t yet tested negative in with those who have tested positive — then they find out they’ve tested negative,” said DeJuneas.

Prisoners’ Legal Services is also in the middle of a court battle, seeking an order to get the DOC to begin assessing cases, especially those of older and ill sentenced prisoners, for home confinement. Organizations like Families for Justice as Healing are also calling for decarceration and mandatory weekly guard testing.

The DOC says that it has proctored 13,400 COVID-19 tests during the pandemic at all facilities, which collectively house about 6,700 people.

So far, there have been eight deaths in state prisons–the last was several months ago.

The Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, Department of Correction, and legislators will be meeting this week to discuss mitigation efforts, following the urging of state Sen. Becca Rausch, who visited MCI-Norfolk on Tuesday.

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.

During the next two weeks, prisoners will still have access to medication distribution, medical appointments, mental health contacts, telephone use, and recreation time outside. Attorney visits and prisoner releases from custody will continue as scheduled.

The DOC says it is expanding video visitation and phone access. Prisoners and their families pay for the services. At the beginning of the pandemic, the department allowed a handful of free calls to families.