Prisoners testify about COVID-19 dangers

Baker administration ramps up incarcerated testing

AS THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION begins ramping up COVID-19 testing at state prisons, prisoners from three facilities testified before a Superior Court judge about conditions at their institutions.

The lawsuit, which is likely to end up before the Supreme Judicial Court for final action, is seeking the release of sentenced prisoners to reduce crowding at the facilities and the potential for COVID-19 spread. An earlier decision by the SJC ordered the release of prisoners awaiting trials.

Michele Tourigny, a prisoner at MCI-Framingham, where 68 of the 189 prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus, testified via phone that she joined the lawsuit filed by Prisoners’ Legal Services because she applied for medical parole on March 31 and has heard nothing back. She has been incarcerated 23 years.

Tourigny has tested negative for COVID-19, but she’s worried she will contract the virus. She was hospitalized last year for an infected leg and surgery that removed part of her lung following a bout of pneumonia. She said she has bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder, as well as an ongoing heart condition and thyroid issues. She is the only occupant of her cell because she has difficulty walking and uses a wheelchair.

“I’m afraid I’m gonna get [COVID-19] because I have all kinds of medical conditions and die in here,” she said.

Tourigny said inmates at MCI-Framingham began receiving masks on April 18, the day after the lawsuit was filed and eight days after Gov. Charlie Baker urged people to wear masks whenever they are in situations where social distancing is difficult.

Ryan Duntin, a prisoner at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, said inmates at his facility got word they would receive masks on Monday and be tested later this week.

The 38-year-old Duntin, who is serving time for a human trafficking conviction and is up for parole at the end of the year, said it’s difficult to social distance at the facility.

He said that 24 prisoners at a time are still regularly going to the day room, where they play board games, use the telephone, and engage with treatment and support groups. Duntin described being in line for meals three times a day, and people being “bumper to bumper” waiting in lines for medications.

“No one really keeps six feet of distance here unless you want to stay in a corner by yourself” he said.

Michael White, a prisoner at MCI-Concord, is being released in July but would like to get out earlier. He testified how prisoners have made their own masks out of socks and how nurses occasionally don’t wear masks or gloves when handing out medications.

The number of inmates in his section of the prison has dropped from 80 to 50 because of earlier prisoner releases, but White said bunks are still three feet apart and there is “no way you can easily distance yourself from others.”

Jason Dobson, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, which is expected to testify later in the week, said the agency tested all prisoners at MCI-Framingham last week and is currently wrapping up testing of all inmates at MCI-Shirley.

Overall, the agency had tested 733 prisoners for COVID-19 as of Monday evening, and 239 tested positive. An additional 114 staff and vendors also have the virus.

Meet the Author

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.

Most of the COVID-19 cases are concentrated at three of the state’s 14 facilities – 68 at MCI-Framingham, 45 at the Massachusetts Treatment Center, and 106 at MCI-Shirley. The numbers at the Shirley facility more than doubled over the weekend after 245 prisoners were tested. There have been seven COVID-19 inmate deaths, five at the Massachusetts Treatment Center and two at MCI-Shirley.

“The Department of Correction continues to take proactive steps including expanded COVID-19 testing at multiple facilities in our ongoing strategic efforts to identify, trace, and prevent transmission,” Dobson said. “The DOC and our contracted medical provider, Wellpath, are focused on reducing, to the greatest degree possible, the impact of the virus on inmates, staff and others within our walls.”