Essex prosecutors will investigate claims of improper masking at Middleton jail
Public defender argues for client’s release over COVID concerns
A PUBLIC DEFENDER in Essex County is asking that his client be released from the Middleton jail because correction officers are not properly masking.
Andrew daMota, an attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said he has been unable to find out if there is a current COVID-19 outbreak in the jail. But there was an outbreak in November and he worries that, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire, which is outbreak.” He argued that his client William Lopez’s life is at risk because of the high risk of catching COVID in the jail.
Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Nasson said in court on Tuesday that “there is going to be an inquiry” into daMota’s allegations about improper masking.
At the hearing in Lopez’s case, Essex Superior Court Judge Janice Howe sounded skeptical of daMota’s argument that a lack of proper masking is endangering his client’s life, but said she will not take action until prosecutors report back on that inquiry. Prosecutors plan to file a motion opposing Lopez’s release by January 6, and a hearing is scheduled for January 12.
The Middleton House of Correction, run by Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger, experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in mid-November. WBUR reported that 100 detainees and 28 staff and volunteers tested positive for the virus. Since then, the Committee for Public Counsel Services says it has not been able to get updated numbers of how many cases there are. The virus is surging in the general population in Massachusetts.
Gretchen Grosky, a spokesperson for the Essex County sheriff’s office, said as of Tuesday, there are six active COVID cases among jail inmates and 26 cases among staff.
In a brief filed in Lopez’s case, daMota wrote that he has visited the jail 10 times in the last 90 days to meet with clients. “I have directly observed nearly every single corrections officer violate mask protocol” or not wear their mask at all unless in the presence of a high ranking officer, daMota wrote. At the court hearing, daMota said he repeatedly sees officers wearing masks on their chin or below their nose. The jail has been operating under a mask mandate since the beginning of the pandemic.
In addition to masking concerns, DaMota wrote in his brief that replacement masks and soap are not readily available to inmates. He said the jail is on lockdown, with inmates allowed to leave their cells for only two hours a day, and to shower every three days. Two inmates share each cell, and the cells share air, so the virus can spread.
DaMota wrote in his brief that attorneys from CPCS have been unable to get information on how often COVID testing is conducted. The last mass testing of inmates occurred the week of Thanksgiving, he said, based on reports from incarcerated people.
During the hearing, daMota argued that jail conditions violate the Eighth Amendment, which gives prisoners a right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, because jail officials are showing deliberate indifference to inmates’ health.
Nasson, the assistant district attorney, did not address the conditions in the jail, saying she has not had sufficient time to investigate allegations of improper mask-wearing.
Howe appeared skeptical of daMota’s argument, questioning why Lopez’s life would be at risk if Lopez were vaccinated – which daMota said he was – and had no underlying medical conditions. “There’s a difference between being at risk of contracting COVID and having one’s life at risk,” Howe noted. When daMota argued that the health risk of contracting COVID in jail was unacceptable, Howe questioned whether her making that ruling would create an argument for releasing all inmates at the jail.Lopez is facing two felony charges of assault and battery for attempting to disarm a police officer, and three misdemeanor charges – failure to stop for the police, negligent operation of a motor vehicle, and leaving the scene of property damage. According to the court docket, he was charged in February 2021, and arraigned in April 2021, at which point a judge ordered him held without bail. After a dangerousness hearing in May, he was again held without bail.
Nasson said Lopez’s record supports a finding that he is too dangerous to be released. While he intends to live with the mother of his children if he is released, she has taken out multiple prior restraining orders against him, which he repeatedly violated. He has a criminal history. In this case, he attempted to flee during a traffic stop and fought with state troopers when they apprehended him, injuring one.